With the departure of Supt. John Deasy, the atmosphere is calmer in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Board meetings are blessedly shorter and less rancorous. Interim Supt. Ramon Cortines has been ably putting out the fires Deasy left burning, including those arising from the troubled iPad program and the unworkable MISIS system for tracking student data.
Yet once again, the future of the district is uncertain. Not only must a new superintendent be hired by the board, but the makeup of the board itself will be decided in the next election. Will it be dominated by supporters of the school reform movement — who tend to oppose teachers unions and favor the spread of charter schools and linking teacher evaluations to students' standardized test scores — or by those who say the reform movement is anti-teacher and that it has narrowed the scope and creativity of education? Not surprisingly, the latter group tends to ally itself with United Teachers Los Angeles, which has long fought changes in work rules and accountability — with too much success. For years, UTLA's positions meant that low-income students of color were often stuck in schools with abysmally low standards.
The seven-member school board is fairly evenly divided between the two camps at the moment, although it is encouraging that there are a couple of independent-minded members who cannot be so easily categorized. As in the last election, there are three seats up for grabs in March, and the balance on the board is at stake. (A fourth candidate, George McKenna, faces no opposition.)
The board's first and most important job will be to select Deasy's replacement. To find that person — and then to give him or her clear direction along with enough freedom to innovate — the board members will need a set of common goals for the district's future. The best candidates in this election will be committed to reasonable reforms, including improving teacher training and student outcomes, and less interested in particular ideologies than in what the evidence shows to be effective. Here are our picks:
District 3: Tamar Galatzan. This endorsement comes with misgivings. First elected to the board in 2007, Galatzan was at times such a reflexively pro-Deasy vote that she neglected to ask key questions about problematic proposals. That includes the proposal to spend half a billion dollars on iPads for every student, which she continued to support for far too long.
Yet at other times, Galatzan has been the board member most likely to take independent positions; she has questioned whether there is evidence to support the value of "parent centers," where parents can meet and use computers on campus. Her legal expertise — in her day job, she is a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles — has provided a useful perspective on multiple occasions, and her knowledge of district issues has deepened through the years.
None of her five challengers in District 3, covering the west San Fernando Valley, is as strong. The most intriguing is Scott Schmerelson, a likable retired principal who oversaw improvements at the low-performing Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School. But Schmerelson has not yet reached the point where he is able to translate his worthy experience and good intentions into policy.
District 5: Andrew Thomas. In this district — which covers the eastern portion of L.A. Unified, including Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Vernon and South Gate — incumbent Bennett Kayser is easily the weakest of the three contenders. Although he is a dedicated and sometimes thoughtful voice on the board, he has not only been a reflexive vote against reform, but has been ineffective in achieving his stated aims. He has valid concerns about whether some charter schools discourage special-education students from applying and whether they push out their low-achieving students. But instead of encouraging better study and oversight of charters, he has voted against establishing or renewing almost every charter school that has come before the board, no matter how high-achieving it is or how many disadvantaged students it helps.
Running against him are Ref Rodriguez, co-founder of the respected Partnerships to Uplift Communities charter schools, and Thomas, an educational consultant and district parent who played a major role in founding the parent-teacher organization at Marshall High School and served on the district's Parent Advisory Committee. Both are well qualified.
Rodriguez is a visionary reformer who rightly sees middle schools as a place where student achievement could be given a crucial boost. Union allies might be surprised to learn that he calls for stricter oversight of charter schools and believes that standardized tests are a poor measure of a teacher's performance. In other words, he appears to think for himself.
But for this seat at this time, Thomas is the stronger candidate. He possesses a deep and broad foundation of knowledge from his experience on the ground as a parent and as someone whose job entails studying what works at schools and what doesn't. His expertise in such areas as school software programs and program effectiveness would be a tremendous help to the board. If Thomas has an ideology, it's that school policies should be based on evidence and not preconceived notions.
District 7: Richard Vladovic. As president of the school board, Vladovic has not been the leader we had hoped he would be. His votes over the last four years too often seemed more about following the prevailing winds than his own convictions, and he failed to pull the board together in a coherent direction. Yet to his credit, Vladovic set up the board's technology committee, which raised important questions about the iPad purchase. He has for the most part tried for a common-sense approach to policy rather than hewing to an ideological stance.
Vladovic's opponents in District 7, which encompasses San Pedro and sections of South Los Angeles, aren't viable candidates. Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher in the Long Beach schools, has a few good ideas — including evening board meetings, when parents are more able to attend — but a narrow understanding of the larger issues. Euna Anderson, principal of a district preschool, would be a strong advocate for early childhood education, but otherwise has few thoughts on improving schools.