Moved by widespread dissatisfaction with the course of public education, a lineup of challengers came forward this week with the will and resources to turn the campaign for Los Angeles Board of Education into the most tumultuous since the anti-busing days of the late 1970s.
The field of 13 candidates for four seats includes contenders in every race who may match the incumbents in spending. Three of those challengers are backed by Mayor Richard Riordan, who has promised to deliver hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate financing, setting up the possibility of one or more upsets.
A fourth challenger who was spurned by the mayor is nonetheless gearing up a well-backed campaign against Riordan's one chosen incumbent.
Although the mayor has yet to articulate a specific agenda for his candidates, his promise to deliver campaign funds is already altering the political landscape by challenging the dominance of union money in the customarily backwater races.
At the same time, Riordan is wading into the volatile politics of race by attempting to unseat two minority board members while supporting a white incumbent in a largely Latino district.
However, while racial divisions drove school politics two decades ago, today a deep dissatisfaction with public education is raising a chorus of voices demanding change. With a majority of board seats up for grabs, many view the April 13 election as a pivotal moment for the nation's second-largest school district.
"The prevailing assessment of this district is that it's like a drug addict who's hit rock bottom--we're at the edge of some big changes one way or another," said civil rights activist Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission.
"We're talking about the future of public education," said Harold Williams, president emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Trust. "Unless we can get our arms around demonstrable student achievement, the advocates of everything from secession to vouchers will gain a further head of steam."
Highlighting the unusual corporate interest in the race, Williams is leading a group of prominent business leaders who will weigh in with "talking papers" on school reform to help voters make their choices.
With public education poised as the No. 1 issue for the state's voters, the challengers are holding the fractious school board responsible for the lackluster performance of the 697,000-student district.
The incumbents defend their records, saying that the reforms they instituted are now taking effect and that they should be allowed to see them through.
Riordan Promises Financial Backing
Riordan has only spoken broadly about what he expects of his candidates. He wants the board to adopt a more corporate style and to fire those who don't measure up to standards. His chosen candidates all said he has given them no prescriptions.
While they do not present themselves as a slate, Riordan's candidates are set apart as top contenders by virtue of the political money--possibly a quarter of a million dollars or more per race--that the mayor has promised.
In what is bound to be a volatile campaign, incumbent Barbara Boudreaux, a retired Los Angeles school principal who is seeking a third term representing South-Central Los Angeles, has accused Riordan of "plantation politics" for "targeting me, a black woman, with another black woman."
The mayor's pick is Genethia Hayes, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Los Angeles and a consultant on developing parent partnerships with public education agencies.
"The mayor will try to buy this campaign by funding lots of television time and tons of fliers," Boudreaux, 65, said. "I'm going to win with my grass-roots groups, my foot soldiers."
The tough-speaking Boudreaux scoffed at suggestions that the board is in desperate need of new faces. She said the district is on the upswing with truancy and absenteeism going down and test scores going up.
Hayes, 53, who had launched her bid before Riordan offered his backing last fall, helped the district develop curriculum for preschool through third grade. In the mostly Latino district, Hayes hopes to forge what a supporter called "a newborn version of former Mayor Tom Bradley's multiethnic coalitions."
"Education for me is a civil rights issue," Hayes said. "We certainly abridge children's civil rights when we don't educate them properly. How can they compete?"
The race for the Silver Lake/North Hollywood district pits Caprice Young, the mayor's former assistant deputy, against Jeff Horton, the protege of City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who preceded him in the office.
Horton, 51, taught at Crenshaw High School for 14 years and won his first two terms with strong support from district unions.
Personally wounded by the mayor's slight, he said he considers himself the leading proponent of the reforms the mayor advocates, pointing to his support for LEARN and standards-based curriculum.