Q&A; : Old Yardstick Doesn’t Apply With Schools

Times staff writer Nancy Hill-Holtzman

Mark Slavkin, 29, Westside representative on the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

Claim to fame: Slavkin won an upset victory in 1989 over incumbent Alan Gershman to become the youngest person ever elected to the board. He appealed to voters by promising parents more of a say in the running of their local schools, and vowed to reform the district’s bureaucracy.

Background: Slavkin was raised in a political family in West Los Angeles, and co-chaired a statewide campaign to enlist student support for the Carter-Mondale ticket when he was 18. A product of the public schools he now oversees, Slavkin graduated Phi Beta Kappa from USC with a major in political science and went on to earn a master’s degree in the same field. Before his election to the school board, he was a deputy for County Supervisor Ed Edelman. He lives with his wife, Debbie, and two children in West Los Angeles.

Interviewer: Times staff writer Nancy Hill-Holtzman.


Q: In 1989, right after you took office, you described the Los Angeles Unified School District as on the verge of a “total collapse and disaster.” Are things still so dire?

A: I’d like to think that we’re better off today than two years ago. I’m much more positive and comfortable with the leadership we have in Supt. Bill Anton. He makes a big difference.

Q: What’s the difference?

A: There’s a sense that there is someone who has a plan and a notion of how things should be organized. And I think there’s a sense of direction and cohesion with the new board that has just been elected.


Q: What is that sense of direction?

A: I think we’ve built a consensus over the last two years that the future of the district really depends on our ability to push decision-making down to the local school level, and to move in some more radical directions. We’re now talking of shifting to local schools the entire school budget as a lump sum. The school would have autonomy and discretion and flexibility to spend that money without the regulations and constraints that are now in place.

Q: How does that translate into better schools, better achievement?

A: It’s a necessary ingredient, because we’ve learned that school districts can’t effectively educate kids with a one-size-fits-all approach. The needs of children are far too different--from classroom to classroom, from school to school, from area to area. Unless we can capitalize on those differences, we’re not going to get the job done.

Q: Go on, what else?

A: The critical piece that’s missing is accountability based on student outcomes. To really improve schools we need to create an environment in which everyone is judged based on how well the kids do. That’s not the case today. We essentially are judging the adults in the system based on how well they follow the rules.

Q: How would you create that environment?

A: It is such a foreign concept in public education that our first challenge is to get educators to accept the idea. Teachers, principals and administrators would be rewarded because kids are making progress--or face sanctions and intervention and ultimately may be transferred or fired because kids aren’t showing improvement.


Q: Those are provocative words coming from somebody who was elected with the endorsement of United Teachers-Los Angeles. Can you get the union to go along with the concept of firing teachers whose students don’t progress?

A: I think we have an opportunity with a new president at UTLA, Helen Bernstein, to put issues like this on the table. She is somebody who understands the need for these major structural changes in the system.

Q: When you say reward, you’re talking about monetary reward, correct?

A: I think money has to be part of it. I don’t think we can fool ourselves that teachers and educators can be in a profession that is devoid of monetary rewards or sanctions, and feel that, just on the basis of their dedication and caring, we’re going to make a system work. That to me is rather naive.

Q: Under School-Based Management, individual schools have petitioned for more autonomy. Yet it looks to me as if a whole new central bureaucracy to regulate them is being created as fast or even faster than the schools can gain a measure of freedom.

A: I think you’re right. In a system that has operated like this for so long, the first instinct is to regulate and bureaucratize everything. And the irony is that here’s something that is in the direction of flexibility, changing rules, waiving the rules, creating room for people to try new things. Yet institutionally, the instinct of the system is to try to attach the same kind of rules and systems on top of this reform.

Q: Has it stymied efforts to make individual schools self-governing?

A: I think it has served to frustrate people. Some of the first group of schools found themselves going through a protracted process where their plan is dissected into itsy-bitsy parts. And part A and B are held up while part C is allowed to move forward.


Q: Does this mean the reform is ultimately doomed?

A: No. The test is whether we can learn from these past two years and move in a much more dramatic way. That’s where this idea of what we call “per-pupil budgeting” comes in. We would say to a high school, ‘Here’s a check for $10 million. Use it to run and operate your school and educate these kids. We’re not going to nickel and dime you about where the $10 million went. And we’re not going to ask that you put it in 27 different accounts. We’re going to come back and evaluate you by focusing solely on how well these kids are progressing.’ That to me is true school-based management. It would probably take five years to phase in.

Q: What’s your response to fears expressed in the board meetings and elsewhere that School-Based Management will ultimately lead to a two-tiered school system that will favor the students in affluent areas where parents have the education, money and time to drive the program?

A: I think that myth is false. The reform opens the gates to everyone. Schools from throughout the city have applied to School-Based Management. Schools in areas that people may characterize as unable to take advantage of this reform are doing the most exciting sorts of things. The mix may be different from school to school as to where that spark of leadership comes from. It may be the principal, a group of teachers or a group of parents.

Q: A sentiment often expressed by Westside parents is their perception that schools in this area are shortchanged--or simply ignored--by the district because kids are doing OK when compared to inner-city schools beset by overcrowding and other problems. What’s your response?

A: I think the rhetoric of some of my colleagues over the last couple of years has served to alienate people and create that sense of “us against them.” Much of that Westside sentiment can be attributed to comments made by some board members that were very inflammatory, very divisive. When you look at how resources are distributed, and add the ability of many parents and communities to supplement what the school can provide, Westside schools fare as well if not better than many parts of the city.

Q: Let’s turn to this year’s deep budget cuts, about $250 million for the upcoming fiscal year. Have these cuts been made to cause the least disruption to educational needs?

A: The perception remains that the district is top-heavy. The district has done a lousy job of articulating what cuts and changes have been made--$6 million over the last three years. Large numbers of administrative positions have been eliminated. The district has yet to send a very clear signal that we’re serious about restructuring and trimming the central structure.

Q: What bold ideas do you have in mind?

A: I think we need to look at the delivery of instructional support services. We have a large office of instruction downtown. Do we want to continue to have centralized resources like that, or do we want to find a way to decentralize it? And purchasing. I think we could go further in shutting down centralized purchasing. We’ve made some steps. Schools can now go out to the local store and buy anything they want, up to $1,000 an item.

Q: In the midst of budget cuts last year, you had to go to the mat to keep the board from giving up millions of state money earmarked to remodel Venice and University high schools. What did that say about district management?

A: It reflected a number of things, including the anti-Westside bias that existed among some of my colleagues.

Q: Are you referring to former board members Jackie Goldberg and Rita Walters, whose board districts had large minority populations?

A: Well, a number of people. It reflected a communication breakdown between the board and the district. No one was standing up and saying, “This is crazy. We give up the money, we don’t get it back.”

Q: What about the larger issue of how schools are funded in California?

A: There has been a failure of will among Republicans and Democrats to confront the tax structure in California relative to the growing needs that we have for better schools and other services. You can’t wash over that with a tax on candy and doughnuts and think you’re done. You’ve got to confront the income and corporate tax structure in California.

Q: What about changing Proposition 13?

A: The current system is not going to ever allow us to move ahead substantially. We barely stay even in a good year. We get creamed in a bad year. I think we need to restore some local funding sources to help pay for schools. Property taxes historically have been the logical way to do that throughout the country, except in California since Proposition 13.

Q: Didn’t voters approve Proposition 98 to ensure adequate funding for schools?

A: Proposition 98 was well-intended. Now we we need to confront the reality that it has boomeranged and created an opposite effect. Proposition 98 said 40% of the general fund revenue is the minimum schools will get. The Legislature has read that to mean that 40% is the maximum schools will get. Gov. Pete Wilson and legislative leaders in Sacramento have tried to say schools came out well because Proposition 98 was upheld. That is a charade to try and gloss over severe and devastating cuts to public schools.

Q: What is the most positive thing that you have learned about the district since becoming a school board member?

A: I think the most positive thing is the large number of very bright and gifted people throughout the system that you wouldn’t know unless you have the opportunity to travel throughout the schools. The tragedy is that they have been stifled under this top-down system. So you have a lot of frustrated people.

Q: What’s the most negative thing you’ve discovered?

A: I think it’s the other side of that coin. The extent to which, particularly school-based administrators, principals, and others, have felt intimidated and controlled by the system was shocking to me. To hear many administrators talk, it’s akin to a Soviet-style system where those at the bottom are completely buried under central control. And they are angry and resentful over that.

Q: In a few weeks, Westside kids are going to be coming back to school in the middle of what used to be called summer vacation. Are you getting a lot of complaints about the new, year-round schedule?

A: Most people are accepting of it and are working aggressively to create child-care options. The weather will be a key variable because of lack of air conditioning. How we manage the winter break, which is the bigger change, will be critical.

Q: Are you seeing an exodus of Westside students because the new schedule is not in sync with private schools and colleges, putting siblings and neighbors on different schedules?

A: I expect that we are going to see some of that. I also think that most of the people who have the desire and the financial ability to go to private school have left already. The reality remains that most people, including Westside parents, don’t have the financial option to pay $10,000 a year for private school. So fixing the public schools for all kids remains the primary goal regardless of how many choose to leave.

Q: Your two children are not school-age yet, but let’s pretend for a moment they are. Could you name five non-magnet Westside elementary schools where you would be happy to enroll your own kids?

A: I could name 50 off the top of my head! Our local elementary school is Canfield Elementary School. We’re a year away from kindergarten and looking forward to it. It was my mother’s alma mater. And it’s a terrific school.

Q: Keep going.

A: I would be delighted to send my child to Marquez Elementary, or Canyon Elementary, or Kenter Elementary, Palisades Elementary, Brentwood Science Magnet, Warner Avenue, Fairburn, Overland Avenue, Westwood Elementary, Canfield, Castle Heights, The Open School, Carthay Center. Those are dynamite schools. You can’t do much better. I don’t think you can find a private school better than that list. And I’m happy to go on for another 10 minutes. The point is that there are exciting schools throughout the school district, not just the Westside, that go unreported because we’re focused too often on the macro-level district crisis.

Q: When you were elected a couple of years ago, you were described as an an up-and-comer on the Westside political scene. Are you going to run for another term on board, or seek higher office?

A: I see the next logical step for me would be to move to the state Legislature. If a seat should open, then I see myself running for that. When exactly that is remains to be seen because of reapportionment and the plans of current state legislators.

Q: What timetable are you talking about?

A: It could be next year. Depending on redistricting and whether there’d be an open seat, it may instead be three or five years from now.

Q: If a bid for higher office is years away, will you run for reelection to the school board?

A: Yes. This is the most challenging and stimulating thing I’ve ever done.