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Nasty Battle for Classroom Control 

L.A., which educates one of every 12 California students, is ground zero in the Education Wars

Wednesday, Feb 28 2007
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As diverting as it is to speculate on whether Hollywood will go for Hillary or Obama, the Los Angeles Unified School Board races on March 6 have the potential to more directly affect Angelenos, from families with children to taxpayers who foot the bill for the sprawling district’s more than 600 schools.

A major power struggle is afoot, with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa facing off against the 38,000-member teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, for control of the five-member elected board — and, ultimately, control over how the bitterly fought reform of the area’s troubled schools proceeds.

Yet even against this backdrop, in which Villaraigosa hopes to sweep new candidates onto the board, and UTLA and its supporters want to retain several incumbents, some experienced political watchers are questioning whether the makeup of the school board even matters.

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Alice Callahan, director of Jardin des la Infancia, a charter school for kindergarteners and first-graders in downtown Los Angeles, and a shrewd observer of school board politics, says, “Board members come and go, and it doesn’t seem to matter which ones are in. They all seem pretty ineffectual anyway. The bureaucracy pretty much runs itself.”

Under the previous schools superintendent, Roy Romer, a number of key teaching, reading and math reforms — focused heavily at the grade-school level — led to dramatic jumps in test scores, even at some of the city’s poorest and most hopeless elementary schools. Romer brought dramatic change — after several previous superintendents and school boards largely wrote off the schools, amid decades of falling test scores.

Despite Romer’s progress — which included a historic shift in student achievement in the grade schools — he was vociferously criticized by Villaraigosa when the mayor launched his campaign to take control of L.A. Unified last year.

Though Villaraigosa has not, to date, released any detailed plan for fixing the schools, he spent months faulting Romer for moving too slowly on improving the high schools.

While the grade schools have begun to flourish, the high schools suffer huge dropout rates. Functional illiteracy is especially common among high school teens who attended Los Angeles grade schools in the 1990s, before the Romer reforms in reading, math and teacher retraining kicked in.

Now, under new Superintendent David Brewer, and in the wake of a court ruling that for now prevents Villaraigosa from controlling even a handful of high schools, the battle over who fixes the schools is playing out in the school board elections.

Two incumbents are up for re-election, and both face well-financed opponents backed by the mayor, while two other seats are open and have attracted rivals financed by the teachers union on one side and the mayor's camp on the other. The seats in play are districts 1, 3, 5 and 7.

District 3, in the west San Fernando Valley, is held by union-backed incumbent Jon Lauritzen, who taught computer skills at Canoga Park High School before winning his first term on the school board.

He attacks his main opponent, Tamar Galatzan, who is backed by the mayor, by saying, “We can’t afford to let the progress we’ve made be squandered by my opponent, who is supported by Richard Riordan and the same anti-teacher coalition that brought us Caprice Young.”

Lauritzen is not known for pushing reform, however, and is chiefly known for a failed attempt to get a one-year moratorium on opening charter schools in Los Angeles. By contrast, Young, swept into office with Riordan’s support, presided over Romer’s reading and math reforms, which proved so successful at the elementary level. She lost her seat to Lauritzen four years ago and now heads the reform-minded California Charter Schools Association.

Lauritzen’s opponent this time, Galatzan, a deputy city attorney with the Neighborhood Prosecutor Program who works with Van Nuys–based police, says she’s running against him because, “As a parent of two young children, I worry that my sons will not receive the same quality education that I received while attending LAUSD schools.”

Meanwhile, UTLA vice president Joshua Pechthalt has attacked Galatzan’s camp for backing charter schools. Galatzan’s campaign manager, Mike Trujillo, says, “Tamar believes that the charter movement is the only way that parents can have a voice in their children’s education.” Is there a conflict of interest in an LAUSD board member advocating charters, which compete with existing schools? Trujillo responds that charters will bring back the fleeing middle class, and actually save foundering public schools.

And indeed, the March 6 election is shaping up as a referendum on whether Los Angeles, the epicenter of the charter-school movement, should push for even more charter schools.

School board president Marlene Canter says the district should learn from charters, including innovations like “small learning communities” for failing high schools. She’s proud that Los Angeles Unified has opened 103 charters, more than any district in the nation. But longtime union-backed board member Julie Korenstein, of the Valley, snaps, “The mayor wants to take out the Board of Education and have his own people under his influence,” predicting that as kids bail out to attend charter schools, “an ongoing attrition” of students will hit LAUSD.

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