The Los Angeles Unified School District educates over 600,000 children, has a staff approaching 100,000, and an annual budget of $7 billion, which is twice as big as the City of Los Angeles.
Education repeatedly ranks at or near the top of voter concerns and everyone from Mayor Villaraigosa to President Obama has staked at least part of their legacy on educational success. The current mayoral candidates are repeatedly asked their positions on educational issues and politicians of all stripes frequently align themselves with educational causes. Yet, of all those people, LAUSD School Board members are the only ones with decision-making authority on educational issues in this, the second largest school district in the U.S. And, they are often among the lowest profile of elections, routinely drawing less than 15 percent of eligible voters to the polls. In that kind of environment, it is easy for a relatively small group of people to have a disproportionately large impact.
The LAUSD Board of Education doesn't only matter to special interest groups, teachers, students, or district staff -- it is hugely important for all Angelenos. Educating our kids well forms the basis for a sound economy, healthy communities, and safer streets. As LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy recently said, the best economic stimulus is a diploma, along with preparation for college or a career.
Which brings us to Tuesday's elections. Recently, there has been much talk regarding the "outside groups" who are trying to influence the LAUSD school board elections. But, as former Board members with a total of 12 combined years of service, we know first hand the pressures facing LAUSD Board members and candidates for the Board. Both of us fought for significant changes at LAUSD, and we felt firsthand the strength of the powerful forces that are out to preserve the status quo.
When people with no vested, personal interest in the outcome try to help elect reform-minded candidates, they are branded as 'outsiders' who are trying to 'buy elections.' This is perplexing. These individuals have a longstanding interest in closing the opportunity gap for poor kids and kids of color, and improving educational achievement for all students. Personally, they stand to gain exactly nothing if the candidates they are supporting get elected. They're willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to improving education, and their participation is critical for leveling the playing field and keeping these school board races competitive. Yet, when 'insiders' who do have a vested, personal interest in the outcome contribute significant funding, this is somehow seen as more acceptable.
Let us address the most obvious issue in these elections: the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). Teachers have an absolute right to organize, to collectively bargain, and to make their case for who they believe the best candidate would be. However, they have historically often been the only voice determining who the best Board member would be.
Healthy competition is absolutely essential in a democracy. It allows for new people on the board who have new ideas and new approaches. Yet, there is a continued notion that people trying to create more competition are somehow doing harm. If you applied the same logic to the Los Angeles mayoral race, city employees would be the only meaningful participant in the election, and anyone else who tried to influence the election would be branded as 'outsiders.' If that makes no sense for the city, why does that logic get applied to the School District?
And the stakes in this election are high. The district has made great strides in providing for greater parental choice, improving teacher and principal evaluations, making significant improvements in reading and math, ensuring access to college courses, and increasing the graduation rate. But there is still much more work to do and more reforms to implement to guarantee all students receive a great education. Superintendent John Deasy, who serves at the pleasure of the Board and has been a tireless advocate for reform, is under attack. Members of the teachers union have even tried to gain volunteers by promising to oust the Superintendent.
In the last Board elections in 2011, just under 12 percent of voters participated -- a depressingly low number. We need more engagement in school board races, not less. Education in Los Angeles will not, indeed it cannot, improve if those who are trying to support change are branded as meddlers by those that support a different outcome.
It is time for all of us to stop condemning those who are trying to improve education simply because we disagree with them. Education is an extremely important issue. It affects every single one of us, whether we are educators or not, whether we are parents or not. Don't let the donations be a distraction -- that is just what the supporters of the status quo would hope. When people resort to shooting the messenger, it's because they've lost faith in their message.
As Tuesday's election draws closer, the Coalition for School Reform, United Teachers Los Angeles, and other groups all work to get their messages out in favor of their preferred candidates -- and then the voters will decide. The competing perspectives will only serve to improve the debate on how to fix LAUSD, and we should welcome it.
Marlene Canter is the former President of the LAUSD Board of Education. Yolie Flores is the former Vice President of the LAUSD Board of Education.
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