(Kevork Djansezian, Getty…)
Los Angeles city government faces a litany of problems, from yawning pension liabilities to poorly paved roads. But few threaten long-term prosperity as much as education, and the ability of the city's public schools to produce an educated, taxpaying workforce.
Though the mayor plays no official role in running the schools, voters frequently name education as their top priority in picking the city's chief executive. And Los Angeles' top elected official in recent years has increasingly tried to exert influence, with mixed results. Education advocates say the future of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where more than one in five students drop out, is dependent on the mayor playing a significant and singular role.
But some say the candidates vying to become Los Angeles' next mayor are just now beginning to do more than pay lip service to the matter.
"I don't think there's been a broad enough or deep enough conversation about education reform, or a kids-first agenda," said Ben Austin, executive director of the Parents Revolution, who is heartened by the fact that the discussions now taking place would have been unheard of four years ago. "Candidates have answered bits and pieces, but the fundamental question is, are you going to make every decision about LAUSD policy through the lens you would make that same decision if it affected your own child?"
Some are more blunt, saying that the candidates are merely focusing on buzz words rather than substance.
"It's about power and politics rather than curriculum and instruction. It's about getting elected, not kids learning," said former school board member David Tokofsky. The candidates' education platforms are "about polling and being safe rather than a city and nation at risk."
Former Mayor Richard Riordan is credited as the first to truly try to leave a mark on the city's schools, and current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched an aggressive drive to remake the district. His efforts were bold and controversial, but his bid to take over the district failed. Since then, he has used political capital to shape the school board, and his nonprofit organization took control of 13 campuses and opened two more.
Of the top contenders in the race to replace the termed-out Villaraigosa, none would follow his exact path.
The two candidates believed to be the most likely to make the runoff — Councilman Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Greuel — share many positions on education. Both pledge to advocate for increased funding for the classroom, and support school choice, the use of students' test scores in evaluating teachers — although they decline to specify how much weight they should carry — and the ability of charter-school teachers to organize. They, like all of the mayoral candidates, support the retention of Supt. John Deasy, who has sought to change the way teachers are evaluated and fired, even though it has frequently put him at odds with the district's powerful teachers' union.
But there are shades of difference in rhetoric and priorities.
At a time when there are marked battles over what role bargaining groups should have in shaping school policy, Garcetti, who is backed by United Teachers Los Angeles as well as the California Federation of Teachers, has kept a more conciliatory tone about the matter. He has repeatedly spoken out against the "bullying" of teachers and the need to focus on what unites teachers' unions and reform advocates rather than the few issues that divide them. But his refusal to fully back the parent-trigger law, which allows parents to petition to overhaul a failing school, has led some to question whether his position was swayed by his union supporters.
Garcetti sought to push back at that portrayal during a United Way mayoral forum on education Wednesday, taking positions that are likely to irk union leadership, such as calling for teachers who excel to receive merit pay, while also taking positions supported by the union, such as backing school board member Steve Zimmer in his reelection bid.
"The teachers union … they're not going anywhere. I've disagreed with UTLA on plenty of things, on [laying off teachers based on] seniority, on parent trigger, on other things that are important," Garcetti said. "But at the same time, I want to be a bridge back, because if we don't have teachers and quote-unquote reformers working together, we aren't going to succeed."
Garcetti and City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who is also running for mayor, prioritize the importance of making schools community centers with services not only for children but for their families. Perry said she has seen the benefits — both to student achievement and parental participation — in the new schools that have opened in South Los Angeles.