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Follow Obama's lead: Invest in teachers

With federal stimulus money available, now is the time for the LAUSD to be creating jobs, not thinking about firing educators.

March 26, 2009|David Tokofsky | David Tokofsky is a consultant with Associated Administrators Los Angeles and a former member of the LAUSD Board of Education.

My fifth-grade daughter, Rebecca, came home the other day with the news that her dedicated, talented teacher had received a pink slip. Ms. Stanco's notice that she might be laid off -- a Xeroxed form letter with her name filled in at the top -- arrived just two weeks after the team of kids she coached brought home the gold medal from the Los Angeles County Science Olympiad.

I know from experience how she feels. In 1992, during another of California's fiscal crises, I received a pink slip shortly after winning the California Teacher of the Year award. Like my daughter's teacher, I also had put in countless hours of my own time to coach a team of students. That team became the first in the Los Angeles Unified School District to win the national Academic Decathlon.

This year 9,000 "precautionary" pink slips went out to teachers and other school district employees --cafeteria workers, truck drivers and others who make a difference in our kids' lives -- to warn them they may not be hired back next year. Whether or not the layoffs happen, the notices are likely to cause some of the LAUSD's best and brightest young teachers to leave the profession.

It's all the sadder because this time the pink slips were sent out at the very same time President Obama came to town to deliver a message of hope. His plan to stimulate the economy includes education funding, and the LAUSD could receive more than $1 billion from the package.

Now is the time for Supt. Ramon C. Cortines to think about creating jobs and improving education. Instead, he wants to slash, not because he has to, one has to suspect, but because it's a way of accomplishing his vision of a decentralized district.

The money is intended as a stimulus, not as a hedge against future needs. It needs to be spent quickly, and it needs to be spent saving jobs.

As 26 members of Congress wrote in a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state education officials, the money is intended in part "to minimize or avoid harmful cuts to education programs and services" and "to keep teachers in the classroom." The stated goals of the legislation are job retention, job creation and targeted investment in education.

Federal stimulus funds will not give local school districts the long-term financial stability they need and deserve. But they will give schools the opportunity to plan how to transform themselves to better meet the 21st century needs of children without the immediate threat of economic collapse.

One thing the board should do is ask people in Los Angeles to support our schools. Local voters have shown themselves willing to support the building of facilities. We need to go back and ask them to support programs for our children: the arts, enrichment, field trips, science and technology skills.

My two daughters are the same age as Obama's daughters. As a parent of school-aged kids, I am glad the president is speaking out for reinvestment in America, especially in education. As Obama said last week at the town hall meeting here, we need to be catching up so that we can one day surpass India and China in teaching math and science. We are not going to do that by laying off thousands of employees and radically restructuring the school district in some utopian, decentralized way. We should not forget that we have a president who is committed to schools and the hopes of our most needy.

As I discovered when I was a member of the school board, the challenge is to fire people up, not fire them. The president has chosen to lead. The LAUSD and others would do well to follow.

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