LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Two words - charter schools. They are at the heart of the national debate over education. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made championing them a federal priority. But in reality, their fate is tied to state funding and local school boards. Recently, the most expensive school board race ever in this country took place in the second-largest school district in the country, Los Angeles, pitting pro-charter candidates against those supported by the teachers' unions. The pro-charter candidates won the majority. And we have one of them on the line, Nick Melvoin. Welcome to the program, sir.
NICK MELVOIN: Thanks so much for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So LA's school district isn't only massive. It also has more charter schools than any district in the country. Why do you think that's a good thing?
MELVOIN: You know I don't know that it is. I think it's symptomatic of our collective failure to educate our kids. So to me, charters were kind of the response to the failure of traditional districts to educate kids. And so in LA, you have 130,000 kids in charters, 40,000 on waitlists. And you have a growing demand. And I think there are two ways to satisfy that parent demand - either build more charter schools or improve traditional schools. And I actually ran for our board of education to do the latter.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But, clearly, there is some disagreement about charter schools. There was $17 million in campaign spending on this recent race, much of it provided by people like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who is a very vocal advocate of charter schools. Pro-charter school side outspent the other side. Do you think private money influencing public education is a good thing - having these expensive races helps the education system?
MELVOIN: I don't. And I actually think money in politics is a corrosive thing. I think the reason we've seen investment from all sides in school board races is because folks believe that there is a lot at stake, whether it's philanthropists who really want to see the promise of American democracy realized through public education, whether it's the teachers' unions that want to make sure that teachers are well-compensated and protected. All sides have a lot to fight for. And we saw that in this election. I think what's lost is actually what parents are really demanding. Why are parents choosing these other schools? How do we support all forms of public education? Right now less than 1 in 2 students are graduating eligible for college from our public schools. Only 30 percent of LA's public school students are proficient in math. So that's what this was about. And I think the money was an unfortunate part of it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, there is a huge budget crisis in the L.A. public school system. And one of the key aims is to increase enrollment in the public schools. Doesn't that mean competing with charter schools for students? I mean, how do they get those funds if their students are going to be going away to charter schools?
MELVOIN: You know, it depends what your frame of mind is. If it's about increasing enrollment to increase money for failing bureaucratic systems, then yes. Any threat to that, whether that's another school district or private schools or charter schools, is corrosive. But if your bottom line is, are we educating kids? - and we believe in kids' rights to great education and a parent's right to choose, then it kind of changes the conversation. We're an underfunded school district. We get about half per people as New York. But we need to earn that credibility back by showing that our schools are improving.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to ask you about philanthropist Eli Broad's role. He was one of the people who has poured money into charter schools in LA. His goal is to create 260 new charter schools so that by 2023, more than half of LA students will be enrolled in a charter. Now that the LA school board is majority pro-charter, are you going to try and accomplish that? And isn't that going directly against what you're stating - in order to support the public school system?
MELVOIN: Yeah - no, I don't support that. I actually think that we can mitigate charter growth by improving educational outcomes for kids. Philanthropists like Eli Broad - they want to invest in our future and our society. And I think they've seen charters as a more efficient way to do that. I'm eager to prove to them that we can actually do this in traditional school districts by being more innovative. And that's going to be our goal.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think this is a fight we're going to see play out in other school districts all over the country? It seems that charter school proponents are willing to sort of fight it out school board by school board, district by district. And they have the money to do it. Is that the way we change our education system in America?
MELVOIN: I think it's one of the ways. I mean, we're seeing similar fights like this play out in cities like New York. And we saw it in the mayoral race in Chicago. There are arguably few more important functions of government than public education. And it's fundamentally broken. We haven't rethought our public schools to kind of meet the needs of today's kids, where in a place like LA, 84 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced price lunch, which is the proxy for living in poverty. So until we find a way to do this for districts like LA Unified, the goal would be to improve enough that we don't see the need for an alternative form of public education. But I don't feel, especially in a system where wealthy families can opt out through private schools or buying homes in more affluent areas, that it's my job to tell parents they don't have the right to send their kids to whatever public school meets their needs.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nick Melvoin is the new LAUSD board member of District 4. Thank you very much for joining us.
MELVOIN: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.