In LA’s School Board Race, It’s Rocío Rivas Versus Privatizers
Billionaires are pumping money into a single Los Angeles school board race in an effort to defeat the teachers’ union candidate, Rocío Rivas, and advance their agenda of privatization. We spoke to Rivas about what’s at stake.
- Interview by
- Ryan Andrews
Last weekend, Jacobin published an article identifying Los Angeles school board candidate María Brenes as a member of the same Los Angeles political clique responsible for the racist city council audio leaks. Brenes’s campaign is backed by billionaires and their money, but she’s not guaranteed to win. Brenes faces stiff competition from Rocío Rivas, who is endorsed by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and fully supports their Beyond Recovery bargaining platform.
Rivas is campaigning to fully staff schools and reduce class sizes, expand community schools and wraparound services, support the Black Student Achievement Plan, and invest in special education, adult education, and apprenticeships. Rivas is also endorsed by the national organization of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and supports the DSA-LA’s Green New Deal for Public Schools campaign to win climate-resilient and carbon-free campuses.
Rivas holds a PhD in education from Columbia University and currently serves as research and policy deputy for Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) Board District 5 member and longtime public education activist Jackie Goldberg. A Rivas victory will secure a majority block on the school board to oppose the California Charter Schools Association and its allies and advance the struggle of working-class Angelenos to win the public schools students deserve.
Jacobin sat down with Rivas to discuss her campaign, the billionaire cash flooding into the race, education reformers and their so-called “creative solutions,” and the fight to defend, fully fund, and expand public education.
Why did you decide to run?
I’m a mom and my son goes to an LAUSD school, so I want to bring the parent voice that’s currently lacking on the school board. And I have the experience — I’ve been preparing to be a board member for the past three and a half years working for Jackie Goldberg. Knowing about the neglect and lack of representation in Board District 2, and seeing the decrease in enrollment and the oversaturation of charter schools, I have an understanding of how to address those issues. And then in light of recent events in LA politics, I’m glad I’m running because Board District 2 needs honest representation and someone who really understands education.
What are the major distinctions between you and your opponent, María Brenes?
I don’t come from the political establishment — I’ve brought honest representation to Board District 5. I’ve been fighting to make sure our students are not used as political pawns because that has dire effects on our schools and communities. So that’s something that separates me from Brenes, because she’s entrenched in the establishment.
In addition to my experience working in policy and research, I also have experience in program evaluation. These are the essential skills that you need as a board member. I bring a holistic understanding of not only the district, but also the charter school industry. And I’m not taking any charter school money, so that’s a drastic difference between us.
Brenes has received eye-popping donations from charter-supporting billionaires like real estate mogul Bill Bloomfield and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who wants to kill elected school boards. Why is it that these billionaires and their philanthropy organizations are so invested in controlling public schools?
Billionaires like Reed Hastings and Bill Bloomfield have a plan to privatize public education, and that plan is frustrated by school boards that are elected by the people. They would rather have a board that’s appointed so they can have control over it. They use their money to change how our schools are managed so that they function more like corporations based on market policies. Everything is driven by keeping costs low and showing results and making a profit out of that. So if your school doesn’t have high test scores, you’re not achieving, you’re not good, your school has to be closed because you’re not being efficient or effective.
That’s the road these billionaires want to take, and it’s not just in LA. What you see in New Orleans and in Denver is what they would like public education to look like all over the country. And as we see in our society, there’s this push to privatize everything. It’s disaster capitalism — they want these public institutions to fail so they can come in and make a profit. So Bill Bloomfield and Reed Hastings are pumping all this money into campaigns for candidates that will go along with their plan to change our schools. And my opponent is taking millions from them; I’m getting mailers like you wouldn’t believe.
Advocates of education reform claim they can “fix” public education with “creative solutions” like charter schools and voucher programs. As someone who has experience researching education policy and auditing charter schools, can you demystify these reform efforts?
If we can change our public institutions to be more democratic rather than so top-down, then there would be no need for “creative solutions” from the private sector. But the district is just not focused on doing that. They always bring in these business people or these superintendents who come in and look at it at the managerial level, but they don’t look at it from a community level. They look at the district and think, “I have to manage this big institution, so what’s the easiest thing to do?” rather than really address the needs of the schools.
Charter schools were supposed to be labs for public schools to learn from. The bureaucracy born out of public education treats schools as one size fits all. It doesn’t look at the fact that every school is different, every community is different. When the charter schools come in, they know the district is very bureaucratic. So the charter schools promise to break from that bureaucracy and bring innovation. Privatizers co-opt the language of social justice and claim these reforms are going to address everyone’s needs. But they’re not there to address the needs of students and communities. What they really want to do is replace our traditional public schools with privatized charter schools. They know that in order to sell this new understanding of how our society should function, they need to convince people that our public institutions have failed.
What I see is that the charter school industry is replicating the district. They want the public education system to crumble so this privatized, neoliberal structure can replace it. So they say vouchers give money to the individual, the funds are going straight to the student. They say vouchers in Chile really helped, but what they don’t tell you is that in Chile, the only people who really benefited from vouchers were the elite, the private colleges and institutions.
When you start to individualize and bring competition into education, you really begin to pull people apart. And then the social contract that public education is supposed to uphold is gone. Charters and vouchers encourage parents to siphon funds away from the district, and the students who are left are the most marginalized, the ones who are the poorest.
And then you have this little bit of money left to fund traditional public schools. You need to pay the bills, but there’s not enough money. So you can’t hire that nurse, you can’t maintain full staffing. There’s so much lack because vouchers and the charter schools take that money out. This is why this system is not geared to address student needs, and they want to blind parents to that.
The real answers are community schools, better wages for our teachers, mental health supports, and social safety nets to provide for the good of all. In order for our communities to thrive, we need to work together. We need to understand and help one another.
When you mentioned the charter school industry replicating the district, I think the most visceral example of that is charter school co-location, this parasitic situation where vacant buildings on a public school campus are taken over by this semiprivate entity that’s not subject to the same mechanisms of accountability that traditional public schools are.
When a charter school is co-locating on a traditional public school campus, it’s like a cancer that comes in and then metastasizes and spreads because you’re not controlling it. The charter school industry does not want to be regulated or unionized because that cuts into their profit, that interferes with their control. But regulation is necessary because you have to control the self-interest and greed that comes from competition and the profit motive.
As is laid out in the Beyond Recovery platform, we can convert those vacant LAUSD properties into housing. If you really want to address academic achievement, you have to help make sure every child is housed, you have to make sure every child is connected to technology, you have to make sure every child is fed.
Even as LAUSD sits on $3.4 billion in reserves, they continue to dismiss the holistic investments proposed in UTLA’s Beyond Recovery platform. What’s your vision for fully funded and thriving public schools, and how do we get there?
We need to advocate for our children and insist that what the current federal, state, and local taxes are generating is not enough. The district should acknowledge that the money we received from pandemic relief funds is the kind of money that we should have been receiving for decades. The reason we have such a teacher shortage is that the investment wasn’t there to begin with. This is a moment to be transformative and to bring real equity, not just Band-Aids.
And that’s what the community school model does. It fosters self-determination for every single person in that school, from the teacher to the parent to the student to the community member that wants to participate. It’s an inclusive system that weaves the social fabric together rather than pulling it apart. The neoliberal project seeks to divide us into individuals, but we have to work together. We need green schools. We need funding. We need more in our schools rather than less.
Politics makes everything seem complicated. It’s not complicated — greening schools is so logical — but it’s hard to do because there’s money involved, there’s politics and power involved, and people want to maintain that power and control. And those who really want to make change and stop the senseless suffering of people — when you voice your convictions and when you stand up, there’s a lot of people who want to push you down. It’s going to take a lot of us to really get in there and do the work and have the courage to stand up to the establishment.
LA is still reeling from the racism and corruption recently exposed in LA’s political machine, and much of the public outrage has centered around redistricting. Outgoing District 2 board member Mónica García appointed her former chief of staff Luis Sánchez to the 2021 LAUSD Redistricting Commission before endorsing Brenes, Sánchez’s wife, to succeed her. Brenes herself was appointed by Mayor [Eric] Garcetti to the 2021 LA City Council Redistricting Commission.
What can be done to ensure the redistricting processes for both the LA City Council and LAUSD board are democratic and transparent and will no longer be used to gerrymander communities for the sake of maintaining entrenched power?
Elected officials should not have anything to do with the redistricting process because when you appoint someone, you’re appointing somebody who has your same interests, who is going to follow your direction and do as you want them to do. But if you have an independent process, it’s really the citizens who are deciding for themselves how our city is going to function. It has to be based on the people, not connected with the status quo. And the only way to do that is to bring a referendum and change these systems because they’re not working for the average worker.
Status-quo politicians are only looking out for themselves and what’s best for them. And this is why we have a city that’s in chaos. This is why we have a city where the communities are neglected. When I’m canvassing, I see the homes that are falling apart. I know that there are multiple families living in a single-family home because I can see them. And I also see their schools, and their schools just look like empty colorless institutions.
I’m inspired by the progressive activism that’s igniting LA’s politics. I think it’s opening people up to the understanding that our public schools are impacted by the political corruption that’s rampant in City Hall. Nury Martinez was a school board member before becoming a city council member, so we can see the connections.
We can do better for our communities. We have to have independence in our politics, and we have to disconnect developers from our elected officials. LA has been known to be a city of political corruption, and yet we haven’t changed it. We need to change the district and City Hall from bureaucratic operations into ones that address the needs of all families.