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Monica Ratliff, the 5th-grade teacher who schooled L.A.'s campaign 'experts'

May 22, 2013|By Karin Klein
  • Victorious school board candidate Monica Ratliff.
Victorious school board candidate Monica Ratliff. (Los Angeles Times )

The Times' editorial board endorsed 5th-grade teacher Monica Ratliff for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District board -- twice -- but that doesn’t mean we expected her to win.

Ratliff went into Tuesday dubbed the underdog by a mile, with her relative shoestring of a campaign war chest compared with the $2 million in independent fundraising for her opponent, Antonio Sanchez. Sanchez also is the far more politically plugged in, and politically savvy, of the two, and he had the backing of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for whom he used to work (as well as the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, for which he also used to work).

As the favored reform candidate who would favor parent triggers, charter schools and more extensive use of test scores to evaluate teachers, he had the considerable financial backing of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the rest of the education-billionaire group. On top of that, Sanchez has been working full time on his campaign for close to a year. Ratliff has been teaching, stumping after school and on weekends.

So what happened? Even Ratliff’s supporters sounded pretty stunned when I talked to them Wednesday.

It would be nice to think that voters delved heavily into the two candidates and chose based on informed opinions on the fine points of education in the Los Angeles area. The editorial board endorsed Ratliff because of her sharpness and her educational expertise, as well as her willingness and ability to form detailed and reasonable positions that rang of individual conviction rather than party line. She could neither be called a full-on reform candidate in the mode of school board President Monica Garcia nor a straight-line union advocate like Bennett Kayser.

Ratliff has a useful on-the-ground perspective about what’s happening in schools; she teaches at a high-performing school in one of the district’s poorest areas. All of the students there qualify for subsidized lunches. And she had helpful ideas about teacher training programs that would actually work. At the same time, she has little patience for allowing low-performing teachers to stay in their jobs indefinitely because of tenure protections.

Sanchez was more general in his opinions. In his interviews with The Times' editorial writers, he sometimes came out with responses that showed a lack of connection to the schools. At one point, trying to show that he understood the major issues confronting local schools, he launched into an anecdote about a former coach of his who was being asked to sweep the floor because there weren’t enough janitors. He changed his position on which process should be used to fire teachers not once but twice, and seemed unaware that he had done so.

But it’s unlikely that these were the issues on voters’ minds Tuesday. One man interviewed by The Times said he thought there were too few women in leadership positions, so he voted for Ratliff.

It is possible that Ratliff’s job was a big boost to her. Despite the flak they often get these days from policymakers, teachers tend to be viewed tenderly by the public. People certainly like the idea of educators for education posts. And fairly or not, they tend to not like the idea of big outside money in their elections, a theme that Ratliff’s campaign tried to hammer home with the limited funding it had.

Ratliff has a steep learning curve on policy-setting and school board politics. But at the same time, I hope she doesn’t become too savvy about those areas. What sets her apart is knowledge, intimate understanding and perspective on what the classroom is like day after day, as a teacher puts his or her all into building the skills of young people. At one point, she mentioned that many teachers and principals don’t even pay attention to some of the policies handed down by the board or Supt. John Deasy. They know what’s working for their students, and they do it. Wonder how many top managers are aware of that?

At her best, Ratliff will remain separate from both factions, reform and anti-reform, on the board and let her inherent smarts and strong sentiments about helping both students and teachers guide her votes.

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