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Hold On to School Gains

March 09, 2003

The last time the local teachers union had the Board of Education in its pocket, Los Angeles Unified School District's dilapidated, overcrowded schools got a little bit worse every day. Four years ago, outraged at how the district was squandering children's futures, civic leaders including then-Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire businessman Eli Broad intervened, backing reform-minded candidates. The district started improving -- far too slowly, but at least in most areas it wasn't getting worse.

Now, with union candidates again in ascendancy on the seven-member board, the district -- still a mess -- is at risk. Unless the new board puts children's concerns ahead of grown-ups', the only hope for achieving top-quality public education in Los Angeles may be to break up the district, as ousted board President Caprice Young recommended.

Young was trounced Tuesday by union-backed Jon Lauritzen, a former teacher who ran for the school board almost as an afterthought, after back-to-back defeats for a state Assembly seat. Another reform incumbent, Genethia Hudley-Hayes, lost to Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, also a union candidate. David Tokofsky, a two-term maverick, is likely to face a May runoff against a Riordan-backed challenger. Only one incumbent has survived outright; Mike Lansing easily won reelection against a rival without a big name or money.

Teachers, as a rule, are deeply dedicated to their profession. Certainly their concerns and their students' dovetail -- the smaller classes that keep teachers from reaching for the Excedrin bottle, for example, also enable students to get more one-on-one help.

But the teachers union showed its values by contributing $509,000 to LaMotte, whose last position with the district was principal at Washington Preparatory High School, a campus plagued with open drug use, robberies and fistfights.

In the bad old days, the union-backed board members seemed oblivious to such campuses, bickering for higher salaries at meetings that dragged on past midnight while students went without textbooks, good computers or current library books. Here's what the new board can do for the 750,000 students it oversees:

* Keep building schools. Thanks in part to the ousted reformers, 120 new schools are in the works. Long overdue, they're needed to get kids out of decrepit buildings, off school buses and away from year-round calendars that steal days of learning and fragment what's left of each academic year.

* Forget, for the moment, about big raises. The district faces cuts of $200 million to $400 million. Take a sensible approach to paychecks.

* Support Roy Romer. The superintendent isn't perfect but he has shaken up the calcified status quo. The board should back his reforms to improve instruction for children, and that requires putting principals back in charge of schools and keeping coaching for new and weak teachers.

* Remember that improving Los Angeles schools is more than a matter of class struggle between bosses and workers. What it should be, rather, is a collaboration between educators, parents, taxpayers and -- over the years -- millions of children whose futures will, in no small measure, rise and fall with school board failures and successes.

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