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.
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.
Charter schools are semi-autonomous, allowed to save money by avoiding certain state regulations and hiring non-union teachers. Anyone can try to launch a charter school, but such schools must show that their curriculum and teachers are producing solid student achievement.
United Teachers Los Angeles steadfastly opposes charter schools for complicated reasons. While it’s common wisdom that charter schools save money by hiring non-union teachers, outgoing L.A. Unified board member David Tokofsky notes that teachers at Green Dot — a charter-school system that has made headlines by stealing students and teachers from L.A. Unified — are part of the California Teachers Association union.
The fact that, as Tokofsky notes, Green Dot’s unionized teachers earn about 10 percent more than other Los Angeles teachers may also play a role in why United Teachers Los Angeles is opposing this new competitor on its turf.
Tokofsky, a widely respected high school teacher before entering politics, has represented District 5 since 1995 and was expected to run again, but recently dropped out. He “wasn’t looking forward to clashing with the mayor” he says, and after years in the $24,000-per-year post, he wanted to focus on building financial security for his family.
Seeking Tokofsky’s seat in the tattered Eastside district are Yolie Flores Aguilar, whom Tokofsky narrowly beat eight years ago and whose salient feature appears to be her acceptance of charter schools, and Bennett Kayser, a technology expert for L.A. Unified. Aguilar met recently with Silver Lake parents and Steve Barr, head of the Green Dot charter schools, and decried a “cookie cutter” approach to education. But Tokofsky — an Aguilar critic — notes that she has a history of backing disastrous education fads.
Eight years ago, Tokofsky says, Aguilar was board president at the obscure Los Angeles County Office of Education, and was a big supporter of the Spanish-first “bilingual education” theory that sent achievement among Latino students crashing down. Aguilar also backed the now-discounted fad known as whole language — an anti-phonics theory.
Interestingly, Villaraigosa, who supports Aguilar, also backed those old classroom fads when he was a state legislator. Aguilar did not respond to the L.A. Weekly’s request for an interview, but according to Tokofsky, during her time with the county Office of Education, she was especially lenient on school suspensions and expulsions, often sending violent students back to school.
Kayser, an L.A. Unified technology coordinator who calls himself a “tireless advocate for education, social justice and community participation” has no major formal endorsements, although Tokofsky has been giving him guidance.
Another touchy battle is unfolding in District 1, which largely takes in South Los Angeles, where incumbent Marguerite Poindexter La Motte, a former district administrator, is endorsed by the teachers union. She opposes charter schools, but she’s gotten far more attention for openly slamming Green Dot leader Barr as “a rich white millionaire trying to make money off our babies” — and then absurdly denying using the dreaded “W” word.
Union leader Pechthalt, who backs La Motte, attacks her opponent, Johnathan Williams, as “one of the most visible charter-school advocates in Southern California” — a slam that might actually help Williams with Los Angeles voters, who are increasingly embracing the charter-school movement. Indeed, Williams is backed by Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, state Senator Gloria Romero and the local Young Democrats.
But La Motte says Villaraigosa’s schools takeover dream makes little sense: “I am really not clear about what the mayor wants,” she tells the Weekly, “and the [mayor’s] recently published 52 points do not help much because just about every one of the 52 points is currently being implemented by this board.”
With the departure of no-nonsense school board member Mike Lansing — a popular former executive director of the Los Angeles Harbor Boys & Girls Clubs — several candidates are fighting it out for the wide-open District 7 seat.
District 7, a long finger of land that begins at Normandie Avenue and runs south through Compton and Lomita, ending in San Pedro, has attracted candidates Richard Vladovic, a retired school superintendent who has the mayor’s endorsement, retired middle school principal Neal Leiner and retired teacher Jesus Escandon.
Between the unions, mayor and school board, the issues — reading and math scores, dropout rates and classroom reform — have been shrouded in a Byzantine haze of politics. Beyond that haze are 740,000 students — one in every 12 students educated in California — who are at ground zero of the Education Wars.
Editor's Note: The March 6 LAUSD school board race features two incumbents, not three. In addition, outgoing school board member David Tokofsky is not making formal endorsements, and has not endorsed candidate Bennett Kayser.