By T.A. Hendrickson
Rocío Rivas, an expert in education policy, has won the Los Angeles Unified school board race to represent District 2, which includes Highland Park, Cypress Park and other communities in and near Northeast Los Angeles.
Rivas’ victory signals a shift on the seven-member school board because it creates a 4-3 majority of members who favor unionized traditional public schools over generally nonunion charter schools, which are taxpayer-supported but privately run with relatively scant oversight.
Rivas, who was endorsed by the United Teacher of L.A. union, has called for curtailing the growth and independence of charter schools on the ground that they drain enrollment and resources from traditional public schools. Classroom overcrowding from “co-location,” in which charter schools are located on the campuses of traditional public schools, is one example Rivas has raised to illustrate her point.
Rivas’ stance is a familiar one in the decades-old debate over charter schools in L.A. But it has taken on new urgency as the school board decides how to deploy resources to address post-pandemic crises in student achievement, mental health, attendance and enrollment.
Recapping the race
Rivas won nearly 53% of the vote to defeat Maria Brenes, the director of InnerCity Struggle, a Boyle-Heights based nonprofit. The District 2 seat was open because the current office holder, Mónica García, was termed out. Brenes conceded on Wednesday.
During the campaign, Rivas was plainspoken about her opposition to charter schools. Brenes, in contrast, did not frame her positions as pro- or anti-charter school, stating that her goal was to reallocate resources from schools with better-off families to poorer schools and needier students.
However, Brenes was strongly supported by charter school advocates, who independently spent $2.3 million to support her candidacy, plus nearly $435,000 to run negative ads against Rivas, according to campaign finance tallies published by LAist.com.
Those charter school sums propelled spending on the Brenes candidacy far ahead of the spending for Rivas, indicating a big push for charter schools even in the absence of explicit advocacy for them.
At the same time, Rivas’ anti-charter stance was underscored by a cascade of charter-school scandals in recent years that highlight the perils of concentrating public money in private hands. The scandals involve financial campaign crime, self-dealing, embezzlement of public funds and other massive fraud.
In 2020 and 2021, the pandemic drove the debate over charter schools underground because financial and human resources were focused on the challenges imposed by the lockdown and subsequent reopening of schools.
But the issue never went away and is poised to re-emerge as school board members decide how to reverse the damage of the pandemic years and move forward.
The school board configuration
Rivas will join three other supporters of traditional public schools on the board – Jackie Goldberg, who represents Eagle Rock as part of Board District 5, George McKenna (BD 1) and Scott Schmerelson (BD 3). The three generally pro charter members are Kelly Gonez (BD 6), Nick Melvoin (BD 4) and Tanya Ortiz-Franklin (BD 7).
The problems of LAUSD are dire. Voters in Rivas’ district have selected her, her ideas and, by extension, her like-minded colleagues to lead the school board in finding solutions.