Why a Charter School Founder Is Running Against Mayor Garcetti

Steve Barr in 2009EXPAND
Steve Barr in 2009

Charter school pioneer Steve Barr, who founded Green Dot Public Schools, announced this week that he's running for mayor. Why would Barr, who's never held public office and is not a millionaire, want to run against popular incumbent Eric Garcetti? 

Because, Barr says, Garcetti has been completely MIA on one of the leading issues of the day: education.

"I don’t know if you can call yourself a great city if you have 200,000 kids going to mediocre or failing schools," Barr says. "I'm not saying the mayor has to take over the school district, but the current mayor seems to think it’s not his job at all. I mean, the mayor has 10 people to do PR and no one on education."

Unlike, say, the mayor of New York, L.A.'s mayor has no formal power over the Los Angeles Unified School District. The second biggest school district in the country is controlled by a seven-member school board, whose members are elected by voters, some of whom live outside the city.

Voter turnout in school board elections is often preposterously low, and some have suggested that a more prominent figure should be given direct control of the LAUSD. That was one of Antonio Villaraigosa's major platforms when he ran for mayor in 2005. When he won, defeating incumbent James Hahn, Villaraigosa got the state Legislature to pass a law giving a council of mayors (with the most power apportioned to himself, naturally) control over LAUSD. But the school board sued, and the court ruled the law unconstitutional

Villaraigosa then shifted tack, vigorously campaigning for school board candidates who supported his brand of "school reform." He initially was successful, electing a majority, who then hired John Deasy as superintendent. But voters seem to be forever dissatisfied with the state of LAUSD, and have voted out incumbents time and time again. Villaraigosa lost control of the school board, and Deasy was fired. 

When Garcetti ran for mayor, he made a conscious decision not to become embroiled in school board politics – though his campaign consultant Bill Carrick argues that Garcetti has hardly abandoned education. 

"Here’s the reality," Carrick says. "The mayor's focused on several initiatives that support student success across the city." Carrick touted the mayor's role in "tripling the number of summer youth jobs" and receiving two "promise zone" grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (the second of which will go to South L.A.). The mayor also has promised to make every LAUSD graduate eligible for one year of free community college, though it's unclear how that program will be funded.

Yet when it comes to the school district itself, Garcetti has steered clear. Barr says he would be much more involved.

"I would try to rally the city around the school district," he says. "You got to look at the idea, maybe the seven people elected by 6 percent of the voters can’t always move the district. Maybe the city charter has to be changed so the mayor has some authority over the schools." (That would require a ballot measure, something Villaraigosa never tried.)

East Valley school board member Monica Ratliff also thinks City Hall needs to be more involved in public education. She's running for City Council and recently told L.A. School Report: "I don’t think the city has been very involved with schools. ... I think they’re totally hands-off when it comes to schools.”

Eric Garcetti in 2014EXPAND
Eric Garcetti in 2014

Garcetti is running for his second term – a term that will last five and a half years, thanks to a law passed by voters in 2015 moving city elections to even-numbered years starting in 2020. He'll be challenged by a former Barack Obama campaign official, Mitchell Schwartz, as well as Barr. 

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"Certainly, [Barr] could make the race more interesting," says political consultant Mike Shimpock, who isn't working for any of the mayoral candidates (at least not yet). "Do I think he could beat Eric Garcetti? I don’t think so. Defeating Garcetti is a very steep hill. His favorables are very high." 

Barr was once known for being wildly unfiltered. When asked by L.A. Weekly, in 2006, about then-teachers union head A.J. Duffy's assertion that charter schools were intentionally skimming the best students from LAUSD, Barr responded: "It’s bullshit. ... It’s like me saying, ‘Duffy’s a pig fucker.’ Have I seen him fuck a pig? Do I have photos? No. So I can’t say it. He should check these things out before he says them.”

Barr has mellowed since then, and as education politics have become more and more polarized, he's emerged as something of a moderate, defending teachers unions (he's a former Teamster) and calling for better pay and working conditions for teachers. 

The big question is whether  big "school reform" donors, who have financed the elections of numerous LAUSD school board candidates (some successful, some disastrous) and who this year has been spending gobs of money on California legislative races, will jump in and support Barr for mayor. 

"The school reform movement, they had a moment with Antonio Villaraigosa that didn’t pan out for them," Shimpock says. "And I have to wonder whether they think the mayor can be an avenue for change, as opposed to getting seats on the school board."

Barr himself says he'll have to prove that he can raise money on his own before the deep-pocketed school reformers — people like Eli Broad, Reed Hastings and possibly even Michael Bloomberg — start writing checks.

"When I started Green Dot, I didn’t ask the big-money people for anything until my third year," Barr says. "I had yet to show anything. A candidacy is similar. I’ve had conversations with some of them. I’ve got to show them that this is real. But they’ve been supportive in the past. If I’m in the game, I’d expect them to be involved."

Barr says he's more than just a one-issue candidate. Homelessness also is high on his agenda.

"One of the first things I’d do," he says, "I would take the Getty House and turn it into transitional housing. And I'd live in my house in Silver Lake. You gotta put your money where your mouth is."


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