Voter Guide: 5 Differences Between LAUSD Candidates Alex Johnson and George McKenna

McKenna, left, Johnson, rightEXPAND
McKenna, left, Johnson, right

Little known fact: there's an election tomorrow! A very special election! A special election, that is, for the District 1 L.A. Unified Board of Education seat, which pits political aide Alex Johnson against longtime administrator George McKenna. Turnout is expected to be depressingly low, perhaps less than 10 percent of registered voters.

There's been some media coverage in the last few weeks, but most of that has focused on the negative ads flowing back and forth between the two candidates (pretty run-of-the-mill campaign stuff if you ask us: this guy has no experience; this guy was working for this thing when this bad thing happened, etc.)

"Issues" have been harder to come by, in part because there hasn't been a single debate in the runoff. But that's not entirely uncommon in school board races — most voters don't know enough to know what questions to ask. So candidates often keep things general (you won't find an "issues" section on either candidates' website). 

So if you can't make up your mind who to vote for (or root for), we got your back. Here are five key differences between the two LAUSD candidates:

Denzel Washington as George McKenna in the George McKenna Story
Denzel Washington as George McKenna in the George McKenna Story

1) Experience
Most of the campaign back-and-forth has centered on experience. McKenna says he's got it and Johnson doesn't. Johnson says he's got a bit more than people give him credit for, and George's experience isn't all it's cracked up to be. You can read all about the thrilling charges and countercharges in the Times, or listen to this episode of Which Way LA.

Suffice it to say, the 73-year-old McKenna is older, and has way more experience — half a century as a public school administrator. His stint as head of George Washington Prep was immortalized in a made-for-TV movie starring Denzel Washington. He's also spent time at various levels of school district bureaucracy. 

The 33-year-old Johnson has, naturally, less experience, but also different kinds of experience. Johnson fancies himself a policy wonk, and he's worked as L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' education policy advisor. Before that he worked for the New York City School District – as one of its lawyers. 

These two men come from very different generations and have very different resumes. George McKenna brings a school administrator's perspective. Johnson brings a politician's. 

2) The Reformer Spectrum
Right, then: the whole reformer thing. Usually school board politics are characterized as teachers union vs. "school reform" (reformers like Bill Gates and, yes, Barack Obama like charter schools, making it easier to fire teachers, and using test scores to evaluate both schools and teachers). That's not entirely unfair: those are two big interest groups that spend a lot of money on elections and function almost like political parties.

The big difference, however, is that candidates don't pledge fealty to the groups. Instead, they exist somewhere on a spectrum. Take the current school board: there's two died-in-the-wool reformers, one unionista, and three independents, who are all sort of hard to pin down. (None of them use those labels themselves, by the way.)

Alex Johnson might be called a moderate reformer. He'd prefer not to totally piss off the teachers unions — he might need them if he runs for higher office. And his campaign emphasizes consensus ideas, like more money for early childhood education, an Obama hobby horse.

McKenna is an independent, not unlike the current school board president, Dr. Richard Vladovic. He's likely to be stubborn, perhaps a bit, um, confident in his own ideas, maybe even iconoclastic. Vladovic can be fun to watch because you never really know what he's going to say. McKenna would probably be like that too.

Both Johnson and McKenna think that schools need radical changes in order to improve. Johnson would likely go about this by working with other board members — namely the other two reformers, who have endorsed him (they would need to pick off an independent for a fourth vote). McKenna would likely make some pushes on his own and hope people agree with. He's already said the district should have a zero tolerance policy toward dropouts. Last week, coincidentally or not, Superintendent John Deasy called for bringing the level of dropouts to zero

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy
LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy

3) Deasy
And what about Deasy? His very name has become a shibboleth of sorts for reformers — pro-Deasy has become a sort of shorthand for pro-reform. And so every recent school board election has turned, to a certain extent, on what candidates would do about him (board members can fire the superintendent at any time). 

Alex Johnson likes Deasy, would vote to keep him. Simple.

McKenna's answer is a bit more complicated. McKenna refuses to say whether or not he would extend Deasy's contract. His spiel goes something like this: I can't evaluate him until I'm a board member. It's similar to what board member Monica Ratliff said when she was running, although she vacillated a bit more.

McKenna may have told certain people that he'd favor firing Deasy – although he strongly denies this. His public comments about Deasy have been largely complementary. "I'm not here to get rid of John Deasy," he told us recently. "I think he's smart aggressive, and courageous in many ways."

Let's say this then: Johnson likes Deasy more than McKenna does. And McKenna could make Deasy's life a bit more difficult, questioning his policies more and perhaps putting the brakes on parts of his agenda....

4) iPads
 ... parts of his agenda like iPads. McKenna has called into question the superintendent's billion-dollar initiative, which aims to put an iPad in the hands of every student and teacher by the end of 2016 and has enraged unions, who'd rather all that money be spent on, well, them.

"It costs us so much money," said McKenna during the primary. "I’m not so sure, from the outside, what the objectives were attached to them. What are we supposed to get out of that? They may be obsolete in a few years."

We asked the Johnson campaign about the iPad issue; they haven't gotten back to us. But it would be a surprise if he came out against them, given how pro-Deasy his supporters are. 

5) Charter Schools
McKenna is fairly neutral on charter schools. According to his campaign: "Dr. McKenna’s belief is that we should make all schools quality schools for students to learn. What District 1 needs is more good schools whether they are charter schools or District schools."

Johnson takes a much firmer, pro-charter stance: "We need to make sure they're not just being held accountable, but make sure we're not demonizing schools that parents are voting for with their feet. I'm on record supporting charter schools."

OK, not a huge difference, but consider this: the California Charter Schools Association has endorsed Johnson, and spent more than $250,000 on a campaign for him. McKenna, meanwhile, is supported by the teachers union, which for the most part opposes the spread of charter schools.

Speaking of the teachers union, it's likely to be in the news more and more in the next few weeks. UTLA, under the leadership of newly elected president Alex Caputo-Pearl, wants a 17.6 percent raise spread out over the next few years. Deasy's offer on the table: roughly 2 percent. So that's a bit less, then. The teachers union is hopping mad and threatening to strike — something it hasn't done since 1989. 

Both candidates think a strike should be used only as a last resort. Johnson has come out and said that UTLA is using the threat of a strike too brazenly; McKenna has not. Neither candidate has said what they think a good-size raise would be.

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