Charter school founder Steve Barr to challenge Garcetti in 2017

Charter school founder Steve Barr on Monday filed papers to run for Los Angeles mayor, launching a long-shot candidacy that could reshape the dynamics of incumbent Mayor Eric Garcetti’s reelection bid by drawing voters’ attention to the city’s struggling school system.

Barr, a Silver Lake resident and darling of education-reform advocates who has not previously held elected office, said he has grown impatient with what he sees as Garcetti’s passivity in the face of a worsening public education crisis. He said Garcetti is “a really nice guy” who lacks “a sense of urgency” about solving the city’s problems, foremost among them the shortcomings of the nation’s second-largest school system.

“The school district – and I’m saying this as a big fan of the school district, as a parent in the school district – in some ways is a little bit like an alcoholic who hasn’t bottomed out yet,” Barr said. “It’s getting better, but we can’t afford as a city to just let this thing linger out there, because it’s not just affecting them anymore. It’s affecting our city and it has for a long time.”

Barr’s entry into the 2017 race comes amid a historic push by local activists to expand charter schools as an answer to problems in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and is likely to revive debate around a recurrent theme in L.A. government: the relationship between LAUSD and City Hall. L.A.’s mayor, unlike those in Chicago or New York City, has no formal authority over the school district.

That hasn’t stopped school quality from periodically dominating city politics. Former Mayor Richard Riordan campaigned aggressively for favored Board of Education candidates, incurring the enmity of the local teachers’ union. Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa fueled his winning 2005 campaign against incumbent James Hahn with promises to reform public education. (That goal eluded Villaraigosa once he was in office, as his bid to take over the school district was defeated in court.)

In taking on Garcetti, Barr faces long odds against an incumbent who has built a broad base of political support and an impressive fundraising machine – and who has made no major missteps during his first three years in office.

Jaime Regalado, an emeritus professor of political science at Cal State L.A., said he thought nothing short of a serious scandal – or perhaps an abrupt exit by Garcetti to accept an appointment in a Hillary Clinton White House – would create “any chance at all” for Barr’s success.

Others cautioned against underestimating Barr’s appeal to an unpredictable electorate in a city where public school quality still tops most polls as an issue of voter concern.

“He’s running as an outsider at a time when voters are powerfully suspicious of the political establishment, and he’s running on an issue that’s close to the hearts of most Angelenos,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “It will be an uphill fight for him, but this is something that Garcetti and his team would be smart to take very seriously.”

Garcetti campaign manager Bill Carrick said that though the mayor has not followed in Villaraigosa’s footsteps by trying to gain new formal powers over the schools, he has implemented a number of programs benefiting students. He pointed to Garcetti’s expansion of a summer jobs program and his recently announced commitment to help fund a free year of community college for every LAUSD student.

“Mayor Garcetti’s focus is on getting things done and on doing things that are going to make a difference in the lives of young people across L.A. and that are real and tangible,” Carrick said.

He also cautioned against viewing a mayor’s duties wholly through the prism of education policy, noting that unrelated challenges such as transportation are also among city officials’ top priorities.

“It’s one thing to be somebody who is focused on education as their issue as an education advocate,” Carrick said. “It’s another thing to be the mayor of a city where you have got a lot of issues.”

The only other challenger to Garcetti with political or public policy experience who has entered the race is Mitchell Schwartz, a veteran political consultant who directed President Obama’s 2008 campaign in California and was communications director at the U.S. Department of State under former President Bill Clinton.

Barr, 56, founded Green Dot Public Schools, a nonprofit chain of charter schools that began operation in L.A. He oversaw the company’s contentious takeover of Locke High School, marking the first time one of L.A. Unified’s schools was turned over to a charter group. Barr stepped down from Green Dot’s day-to-day leadership in 2009, but has remained active in education policy at both the state and national level.

Barr was raised in Monterey and Cupertino by a single mother who worked as a cocktail waitress and dental assistant. He spent a year in foster care, went to a community college and joined the Teamsters when he worked at United Parcel Service while finishing his degree at UC Santa Barbara. 

It is a background that differs markedly from that of Garcetti, who grew up in Encino and attended an elite private high school before heading off to Columbia and, eventually, to Oxford through a Rhodes Scholarship.

Asked about what some see as the foremost accomplishment of Garcetti’s first term – his role in raising the city-wide minimum wage to $15 – Barr demurred.

“The difference between him and I is I’ve actually lived on minimum wage,” Barr said. “I understand it’s a great thing to get the minimum wage up to $15 an hour. That’s fantastic. It’s not even close to scratching the surface of what this city needs. And it wasn’t an incredibly controversial stand when he took it.”

Barr said he doesn’t yet have a full-fledged plan for overhauling the school district, but that two immediate areas for improvement are the resources the district as a whole pours into administrative overhead and the conditions at L.A.’s worst-performing schools.

He said he would prefer to work cooperatively with school district officials, but would be willing to pursue changes in city or state law to expand the mayor’s power were he to find his efforts stymied.

“The proposition for them is, ‘We’re going to rally around you, but you’ve got to change. And mediocrity is no longer an option,’” Barr said.

The viability of Barr’s campaign could hinge partly on whether he secures the support of wealthy school-reform advocates in L.A., some of whom are involved in a plan that could dramatically increase the number of charter schools operating in the city.

A confidential draft of the plan obtained last year by The Times described raising $490 million to move half of the school district’s enrolled students into charters over the next eight years. Reform advocates later backed away from the plan, but critics still worry about a massive charter school expansion that could bankrupt the school district by drawing away students – and the state funding that accompanies them.

Frank Baxter, a businessman and former U.S. ambassador to Uruguay who has actively supported charter schools, called Barr “one of the pioneers in the charter movement in Los Angeles.”

Baxter declined to say whether he would support Barr’s candidacy, though he said Barr had informed him of his decision to run.

Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, another prominent backer of local school-reform initiatives, was traveling outside the country and could not be reached for comment.

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UPDATES:

4:38 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about a plan to expand charter schools in Los Angeles.

2:21 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Bill Carrick, campaign manager for Mayor Eric Garcetti.

This article was originally published at 8:27 a.m.

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