For the Los Angeles School Board, Now Is the Moment of Truth

Public education advocates in Los Angeles are running two school board candidates this year in an effort to halt creeping privatization. Their opponents in the charter school lobby are also eyeing the school board — and have millions to spend on their agenda.

Karla Griego, running for Los Angeles School Board in District 5, speaks to campaign volunteers at a canvass on February 3, 2024. (Courtesy of Jessica Myers)

With one in five students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) area already enrolled in a charter school, it’s fair to say that Los Angeles schools are under serious threat of privatization.

Thankfully, Los Angeles also has the largest school district of its size in which school board members are elected by voters, rather than appointed by a mayor or city council. Consequently public education advocates in LA are heavily focused on school board elections to halt the creep of charters. This year they’ve put up two candidates with a strong pro-public education agenda and the backing of the teachers’ union United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA): Kahllid Al-Alim and Karla Griego, running for BD 1 and BD 5 respectively.

Al-Alim and Griego’s campaigns won’t be a cakewalk. Pro-privatization forces also have their sights set on the school board, with billionaires shoveling money into past school board races to get their candidates get a seat at the table. It’s no mystery why: the school board oversees big-picture decisions like approving the budget, setting curricula, and deciding the general direction of the district. It’s in charge of approving, or rejecting, new charter petitions and renewals in the city. It’s therefore no exaggeration to say that the future of public education in Los Angeles hinges on the outcome of school board elections.

Once reliably favorable to privatization, the LA school board has been more circumspect about charters in recent years. In the fall, the board passed a resolution directing the district to provide a policy to limit the colocation of charters on campuses occupied by neighborhood schools.

Now, four out of seven board seats are up for election — pitting public education advocates and their pro-charter opponents against each other in a highly consequential battle that will determine the future of the second-largest school district in the country. If Al-Alim and Griego win, they will tip the balance in favor of the teachers’ union and pro-public education community groups like Reclaim Our Schools LA. If they lose, the board could become the province of billionaires and privatizers who want to see public services stripped for parts.

The Lay of the Land

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) serves roughly half a million students every day. It is the largest provider of social services in Los Angeles County. It prepares more than 107 million meals a year. It provides free health services such as vision screenings, dental assessments, and immunizations to low-income LAUSD students and their siblings. It is the second-largest employer in the county with roughly twenty-five thousand teachers and just under fifty thousand other staff, who, with the exception of charter schools, are virtually wall-to-wall union.

By these facts, the Los Angeles Unified School District is one of the largest and most radical experiments in public service provision — that is, caring for one another — in the entire United States. For anyone who cares about public goods and opposes privatization and austerity, it’s well worth defending.

Here’s a look at the board right now: in board district 2 (BD 2), teacher-endorsed candidate Rocío Rivas was elected in 2022 despite billionaires devoting millions of dollars to the fight against her campaign. She is not up for reelection. Additionally Nick Melvoin, BD 4, and Kelly Gonez, BD 6, have both been on the board since 2017 and will remain in place.

There are four open seats: BD 1, 3, 5, and 7. BD 3’s Scott Schmerelson is running for reelection and so is BD 7’s Tanya Ortiz Franklin. Incumbent Schmerelson, endorsed by UTLA, is running against charter-supported candidate Dan Chang. Franklin leans charter-sympathetic — voting against the colocation resolution in September, voting for Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s controversial calendar change and refusing to stand with the union during its strike in 2023.

The orientation of the school board is thus very much up in the air, which is where Al-Alim and Griego come in. Al-Alim is a father of five who has a decades-long reputation as a parent-activist. Al-Alim is an Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 721 member and community organizer who was born and raised in South Central LA. He’s running for school board in BD 1, comprising most of South Los Angeles, Koreatown, and Mid-City. Al-Alim has spent much of his life organizing against the closure of schools with majority-black student populations and has played a role in the creation of the Black Student Achievement Plan (BSAP), which addresses the specific needs of black students and families.

Al-Alim is an open opponent of charter schools and is endorsed by UTLA and the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA-LA). Al-Alim’s race is crowded, with seven candidates fighting for a spot on the November ballot in this district. Several notable candidates are Didi Watts, the current chief of staff to LAUSD board member Ortiz Franklin, and Sherlett Hendy Newbill, an education policy advisor for retiring BD 1 representative George McKenna.

Griego, meanwhile, has spent twenty years as a teacher in working-class Los Angeles communities. Griego has served on the UTLA Board of Directors and is a longtime leader in Reclaim Our Schools LA, a coalition of educators, families, students, civil rights groups, and community organizations with a mission to secure racial justice in public education. As an organizer, Griego has helped shape UTLA’s organizing program in contract campaigns. She recently guided her chapter in UTLA’s three-day solidarity strike with SEIU Local 99, where sixty-five thousand workers walked out to protest LAUSD’s unfair labor practices, resulting in a 30 percent raise for support staff.

Griego is running for BD 5, covering Northeast LA. Her toughest opponent is Fidencio Gallardo, the education innovation deputy to current BD 5 member Jackie Goldberg. Like Al-Alim, Griego is a strong opponent of charters and is also backed by both UTLA and DSA-LA. In conversation with Jacobin she spoke of herself primarily as a grassroots activist, saying that organizers need to “bring the work that we’ve been doing on the ground to the school board.”

The Schools Students Deserve

A cornerstone of Griego’s campaign is advocating for LAUSD’s Community Schools Initiative, which addresses student barriers and improves student outcomes through meeting “whole-child” academic, mental, physical, and social-emotional needs. Community Schools are wraparound education hubs — think a typical public school turned community center where families have access to physical health, mental health, and enrichment services during and outside regular school hours. School sites, local leaders, and community-based organizations work together through shared ownership and responsibility. The district’s Community Schools Initiative centers on connecting students and families with services, carving a clear pathway for community voices and engagement at schools and shared decision making.

A major facet of Griego’s vision is to build and grow Community Schools in the district. “I really do think that they are the best and most democratic way of schooling,” Griego told Jacobin. Community Schools are not just a place where there can be wraparound services for the community, she said, but also where everything is very transparent, including the school budget.

Al-Alim echoed the sentiment, telling Jacobin that a primary priority of the board should be putting public schools back at the forefront of community development, and that there’s no better foundation for community development and revitalization than Community Schools, which implement community-led initiatives like the BSAP. The “bureaucracy of the district” paired with the board’s power to “stagnate all this beautiful progressive progress,” Al-Alim said, is a major motivator for him in his run for school board. He added that the “complacency” of the board, and its failure to fully hold the district and Superintendent Carvalho accountable to fully serving students, is frustrating to him.

The LAUSD is the second-largest government body in the Los Angeles area with a budget larger than the city. It is also one of the largest landowners in Los Angeles. What happens in the district has an enormous impact on the working, living, and learning conditions of working-class Angelenos. LAUSD needs a push in passing local legislation that benefits students and educators, Griego said, and she would champion a proposition that taxes the ultrarich 1 percent in Los Angeles. She told Jacobin that she would urge the district to “stop hogging” reserve money that “belongs to the kids.”

Griego has a vast vision for fully funded schools, including smaller class sizes, fully funded arts education, more union jobs, green spaces on campuses, and fully funded mental health support for every single school site. “If we have a board that sees children and their educational experiences holistically, then we can start doing beautiful things,” Griego said. “A working-class school board will look at the whole child, the whole family, the whole community.”

If he’s elected, Al-Alim told Jacobin that he is ready to push forward important pro-student, pro-educator resolutions and policies. “We are going to start moving things that are going to benefit our Community Schools,” Al-Alim said. “It’s here. It’s funded. It’s ready to go.” LAUSD has roughly $4.9 billion in reserves, and yet the district continues to dismiss the holistic investments proposed in UTLA’s Beyond Recovery platform, Al-Alim said. “We have all this money that we’re not investing into these schools.”

Fully funded schools “develop character in our students and instill a sense of pride once again about who we are, where we come from, and what we’re capable of doing,” Al-Alim said. “Put [public schools] back in the hands of the communities, the parents, the teachers, the students, the community-based organizations,” Al-Alim said.

“What we need on the board is someone that will actually dedicate themselves to students, not cutting services that students actually do need but implementing services that students need,” said Romy Griego, seventeen, a student organizer at Eagle Rock High School in BD 5 and Karla Griego’s daughter. Romy is a leader with Students Deserve, a student-led advocacy group that is fighting to end the school-to-prison pipeline. When not at school, she helps with her mom’s campaign, running canvasses and filling in support roles. Tired of “politicians on the board” ignoring her and her peers, Romy said she encouraged her mom to run because students want to see schools that are better funded, police free, and with more mental health services.

This election is an opportunity to “realize and recognize what is possible,” Karla Griego said. “What does it look like for schools with a working-class school board? It’s exciting to think about the possibilities of the changes and the transformations that we can make.”