Nick Melvoin calls himself a “radical pragmatist” — someone who will shake things up to find solutions.
In today’s highly polarized political atmosphere, Melvoin resists categorization.
“I think part of my governing philosophy is trying to bring people together as opposed to having these extremes on both sides,” Melvoin says.
A former teacher, Melvoin rode onto the Los Angeles Unified School Board in 2017 as a reformer, going to bat for students and parents, and approaching charter schools with an open mind. He was recently re-elected with the kind of numbers that suggest voters are solidly on his side. As a Democratic candidate for Congress hoping to replace Adam Schiff, Melvoin hopes to show the 30th District that the clear-headed approach he’s brought to L.A.’s schools will do wonders in Washington.
Melvoin sat down to speak with WEHOville about how school district issues are driving the national conversation, the threat of AIs to America’s workforce and what to do about Russia and China in this exclusive interview.
What’s your origin story?
I grew up on the West Side. I left for college but returned in 2008, 15 years ago, to start teaching in LAUSD. This experience gave me a real-world education about the need for educational
Our public education system was a daily part of my life when I was living out on the west side. I was driving into Watts every day, noticing the disparity between streets and their parts of the schools, which was really vast. Unfortunately, I had the misfortune of teaching during the recession, which led to me being laid off, along with thousands of my colleagues. This state’s policy is based on seniority, last in, first out.
After that, I joined a civil rights fellowship, spending some time at the U.S. attorney’s office and the Obama Administration, in the White House. I then came back to LA with my law degree. It was then when some parents recruited me to run for the school board to tackle these issues on a larger scale. I’ve been back in LA since 2015.
Since my high school days, I’ve been part of a program called Camp Harmony, a camp for homeless and housing insecure youth. My family is close-knit, with my folks on Brentwood, my brother and his husband, and their two kids living in London. We spend quality time with each other when we can, like like how I Facetime every day with my niece and nephew.
As for my personal life, I got married last July. My wife and I live in the district, specifically in the Larchmont area, which is just a few minutes from the city of West Hollywood. My wife works as a casting director for film and television. On the way back home today, I drove past Paramount and saw a strike – not against the school district, which was a refreshing change. As my father was associated with the Writers Guild, I proudly support the writers in their effort.
What makes you different than the other 11 people in the race?
I kind of expected this when I jumped in myself, and in some ways, I’m glad that there’s an embarrassment of riches. Not all 12, but the folks who I know, who are in elected office or former elected office, are people I respect and we have supported each other for office in the past. There’s another generation of Democrats who want to be leaders. Not just that there’s anything special about age necessarily, but I think my generation is the first in maybe a century where our life prospects in terms of staffing, quality schools, housing affordability, income, are less promising than our parents. So being able to relate to that but also generationally, I think there’s a belief in government about just getting stuff done.
When people call my office — I’ve been on the school board for six years — they don’t ask what’s the liberal or the conservative response to homeless encampments near their schools. They just want an answer, and this idea of a return on investment for your tax dollars in terms of good schools, clean air, and not getting killed on your way to school either by a speeding vehicle or gun violence is something like my core principle.
And then experience matters. Some have different levels of it. I think the work of local government, both as a teacher and doing it on the school board, has done everything from building housing to touching on a lot of different quality-of-life issues that I think are relevant to folks in their 30s.
So, I’m not going to be looking to bad-mouth opponents over the next year. I just think what I present is a radical pragmatist who has a track record of moving things and working across lines of difference with the board to get stuff done for people.
You ran as a reformer to the school board. What has been your impact so far?
So I think, in a lot of metrics, we’ve seen progress. We’ve achieved the highest graduation rate in the district’s history this year. For the first time ever, we beat the state of California. We’re the only urban district in the country to show progress on math and literacy on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. We’ve balanced our books in a way that I said I was going to do when I got elected.
Prior to my election, the district faced the risk of insolvency. I was a teacher who was laid off every year because of budget cuts. Just this past year, our credit rating agencies all universally improved our credit. I think, in my selection of two different superintendents to help run the school district to cater to communities of different backgrounds, we’ve made progress.
We’ve been able to pass the largest bond measure in the country in 2020, $7 billion, with over 70% of the vote. This enabled things like school modernization and electrification of our bus fleet, and some housing projects. We selected Fairfax High School for a much-needed $130 million renovation.
We’ve also expanded pre-K, beating the state of California by over a year. Starting from next year, every four-year-old will have access to free pre-K in the city, a big priority of mine. We’ve started a college savings account program where every first-gradera has a $50 savings account opened in his or her name. Universal SAT preparation with SAT offered for free during the school day to ensure students can go to college is another initiative we’ve implemented.
There’s a lot we’ve done. Also, the criticism against me when I ran was that I was just going to turn every school into a charter. But I think I’ve shown a willingness to find common ground and work with people like Jackie Goldberg on the board. We passed a resolution to give schools that are co-locating more money, so the district school will get more money for the challenge of being co-located, we did that together.
We’ve also found ways to support high-quality schools and close underperforming charter schools. I was really proud not just of my re-election, but of my endorsement with the County Federation of Labor and many of those unions who were initially suspicious. Over the first term, I was really cognizant of building those coalitions and saying I’m for good schools, regardless of their model. I think the district had abdicated their responsibility over 20 years.
And improving the quality of neighborhood public schools — that’s why we have charter schools, not because there’s something magic about the word ‘charter.’ So there’s kind of been a recalibration on the board to figure out how to perform, and the best indication, I think, of our success is when people tell me that they’re moving back in from Santa Monica or Beverly Hills or Culver City to go to LA Unified, which, you know, doesn’t happen as often as it is now.
And when people in West Hollywood are talking about wanting to be zoned for LA Unified instead of pushing to build an independent school, it shows we’re figuring out zoning issues, and that’s a good problem to have.
We’re seeing a lot of issues that are typically confined to school boards, like sex education, gender ideology, and diversity and inclusion, driving the national conversation. How are those issues going to factor into this election?
I think that schools have been, for over 100 years, the front lines of our societal battles. So in some ways, there’s nothing new about that. I think being on the front line, through both COVID and the CRT stuff, it’s a helpful primer for going into Congress and trying to lead on education as one of their number one priorities. But there’s not a lot of leaders, especially on the Democratic side, in education because of the challenges that come with it. A lot of people shy away from it, and I think we’re seeing that.
We’re not teaching CRT in schools. Some people might think that LAUSD is forcing gender reassignment surgery on three-year-olds. None of that is true. What we’re doing is creating a model, and a middle ground, that respects the rights of all students and families, but does so in a collaborative way.
I think we saw it with the ethics. We were criticized, but it’s a matter of inclusion, but also just things like repurposing a single-stall bathroom and calling it a gender-neutral bathroom and saying, ‘we want to make sure that you feel comfortable.’ But this doesn’t have to be this huge cultural war. Just change the sign and make sure the kids know that they can use it and feel comfortable.
So I think part of my governing philosophy is trying to bring people together as opposed to having these extremes on both sides. We are seeing pushback. I’ve received obviously some attacks on education from the right, but we’re also seeing it from the left, like around folks who want to keep our schools closed for too long or on the subject of ethnic studies, where some of the curriculum has been anti-semetic and I have been fighting against it for the past few years.
Do you feel like teachers’ unions have held back progress in education?
I think that the teacher’s unions are very good at doing their job, which is advocating for teachers. My perspective is that we need more parity in who’s advocating for kids and parents. Not that the teacher’s unions aren’t thinking about that, but that’s not their primary role. So, when they sit at the table with us and we’re discussing whether kids should go back to school or teachers should return during the pandemic, they’re just thinking about their members, which is fine. But who’s thinking about all the kids who are at home and not getting their education? That’s what I’m advocating for.
I would say that the outsized influence of teacher’s unions has been a hindrance to progress in public education. It’s not that I don’t think the teacher’s unions should exist. I just think that schools need to be more accountable to parents as their constituents. I believe this holds true across the board in the public sector. They’re doing their job, but it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that they’re just one stakeholder at the table, not the only one.
How long before AI puts educators out of their jobs?
It’s a good question. I think there’s a while before educators lose their jobs to AI. We are trying to embrace it early on as opposed to being scared by it. I see opportunities like those provided by Khan Academy as a starting point. I have tried some of their AI demonstrations. It’s like AI anticipates mistakes and becomes a teaching tool. I think AI tutoring tools are amazing.
I can see teachers asking, ‘How do I better articulate this lesson idea with your help, ChatGPT?’ or ‘How do I have ChatGPT write a persuasive essay and work with my students to figure out what could be improved upon?’ For instance, ChatGPT wrote an impressive essay about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ that I probably wouldn’t know wasn’t written by a student.
We should be cautious but, like all technology, we can’t completely shut it out. I want us to embrace it as a teaching tool. Some districts, like New York, have banned it. The pace of this change is pretty incredible. I don’t think there’s fear in the short term that educators will be out of a job. Those who don’t understand how to utilize AI are missing a real opportunity to help kids and to help teachers. For example, even just grading can be significantly streamlined by AI.
Embrace that, rather than being scared by it.
In what ways would you improve upon Adam Schiff’s performance as congressman?
I wouldn’t say improve upon as much as carrying the torch. He has been an incredible representative for the district.
In terms of the resources you’ve brought to bear, for a diverse district that includes independent cities like West Hollywood, a few school districts, Hollywood, Griffith Park, the zoo, and the Jewish and Armenian communities. I really hope to ensure we’re funding local projects whether that’s infrastructure, transportation, green initiatives. Adam Schiff has also obviously been a great voice for communities in our district.
I intend to carry on that mantle, as a civil rights lawyer myself, like his defense of democracy, as we saw during the last few years. We’re alike, not just because we’re both Jewish, but because we’re both willing to work.
Do you think the Biden administration is too secretive?
One of the first things I did on this board was pass the open data resolution to make sure all of our data is publicly available. Transparency as an antidote to corruption and the lack of faith in the government. So I think sometimes, whether it’s for foreign policies or infrastructure quality project, the Biden Administration needs to be a little more open and forthright with people to counteract political polarization. Anything done behind closed doors arouses suspicion and so I think, even though there may be valid reasons for keeping them closed, we need to be more transparent.
How do you think the U.S. is doing in its proxy war against Russia in Ukraine?
I think that the balance between being the world’s policeman and also making sure that we’re not letting democratic allies anywhere in the world get trampled on by authoritarian regimes is a tricky one. And I think one of the successes of the American approach right now to the situation between Russia and Ukraine is that the return on investment for the dollar we’re getting in terms of weakening the Russian military is substantial. We’re not fighting ourselves, not putting our troops on the ground, not losing American lives but just through technology, whether that’s the Javelin missile system or some of the tanks that we’ve put in, the results are really incredible. I actually had an opportunity a few months ago to tour Fort Irwin, located between here and Vegas. Seeing some of the technologies and speaking with the generals on the ground about our operations was truly remarkable.
If Trump was still president, I fear Ukraine might have just become part of Russia. It’s essential for anyone who believes in self-determination and democracy to fight against authoritarian regimes. As a Jew, as an American, it’s vital for me that we engage in this struggle. We’ve been doing so strategically with our alliances and our selective weapon infusions, and it has been effective.
It would be challenging to find a more efficient method, dollar for dollar, to expose some of the weaknesses in the Russian regime without escalating to military conflict. I believe our strategy has been relatively successful, and we’ve navigated the situation well.
However, we also need to find ways to reduce our dependency on Russian oil, a national security concern even without Russia’s current actions.
Will the U.S. be able to protect Taiwan if and when China invades?
It’s a precarious situation. The U.S., China, and Russia seem perpetually on the brink of a global conflict. My hope is that we can avoid military conflict and maintain diplomatic channels with the Chinese.
The challenge for the U.S. in balancing global intervention versus isolationism is that similar patterns of self-determination emerge, whether it’s in our relationship with Taiwan or in the situation between Russia and Ukraine. In Russia and Ukraine, there was global dependence on agriculture and certain crops, but in Taiwan, it’s about semiconductors and technology. We need to ensure that China doesn’t follow Russia’s example.
Our support of Ukraine and the success we’ve had there, despite many experts predicting Russia’s dominance, is a testament to our strategic approach. I hope that this success deters any aggressive actions towards Taiwan.
Of course, this will likely be the next geopolitical struggle we’ll face, and it shares many similarities with the current situation: a nation’s self-determination threatened by an authoritarian power. It’s crucial that we strive to avoid military conflict.
Why should WeHo voters forego their own mayor to elect you as their representative?
For the voters in West Hollywood who currently have the opportunity to elect their own mayor, my appeal is simple. LA County politics can be a double-edged sword with its 88 different cities. However, inclusion is crucial. I’m proud that the school district I represent covers 27 cities, including parts of West Hollywood. I’m in regular communication with Mayor Shyne and Council Member Erickson, who I played pickleball with this weekend, about improving the schools in West Hollywood and creating opportunities and pathways for families and institutions there.The 30th congressional district covers 60% of LA, including West Hollywood. I’m proud to represent this district and believe in being a devoted representative for all.
Navigating different levels of government, such as federal, county, and state, is a challenge. But I’m proud to say that I’ve effectively collaborated with all levels. Even while being candidates, we were able to install productive dialogue because I am a proud colleague and representative for the city of West Hollywood.
In the coming year, I’m eager to listen to constituents’ stories to hear more about what they need and make the case about why we need a new generation of leadership and why I am the best choice in this race to deliver for them.
Who else is running?
If he makes it to Congress he will find that no matter his personal convictions that may set him apart, the Democrat leadership will make him toe the line to support every radical item in their agenda. If he does not they will make sure he is replaced in the next election. His “pragmatism” will matter not one bit. There will be no place for it. I could take issue with him on several items (LA Unified Schools has far, far too many administrators, which costs the district a lot of money and they serve almost entirely no practical purpose),… Read more »
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Worth investigating this guys voting record for vax mandates for staff, forced vax and masking kids, tho
How refreshing to see a candidate finally validate some of the serious concerns around schools closures and other covid restrictions impacting education and social development, that many of us having been fighting (in court successfully and in the streets) for years. A small step towards LA finally getting with reality at last.
“And I think one of the successes of the American approach right now to the situation between Russia and Ukraine is that the return on investment for the dollar we’re getting in terms of weakening the Russian military is substantial.”
Not a credible candidate
On this point, I wholeheartedly agree.
As Obama said, “not in our strategic interest.”
Wehoville great job introducing us to the candidates to replace Schiff. I’m personally in the Melvoin column and this article helps confirm everything I like about him.
We could do a lot worse. But the state needs a business person and not another politician pandering to the extreme left. The LA school system is a disaster ……and no amount of money can fix it.
Some common sense on safety and fiscal responsibility would be welcome.
Yeah, because businessmen make such great politicians.
Plenty of examples – at least 45.
Why should WeHo voters forego their own mayor to elect you as their representative?
Because Shyne is a horror story. Anyone who supports Sepi Shyne is a traitor to all things good.