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California

A shrug from voters to struggling L.A. schools, and have a nice summer, kids

PACOIMA, CA OCTOBER 25, 2018: Students sit at tables after school at Telfair Elementary in Pacoima
Students sit at tables after school at Telfair Elementary in Pacoima, on October 25, 2018.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

On this, the last week of school before summer break in the Los Angeles Unified School District, voters have sent a loud and clear message to roughly 600,000 students:

Your schools may be crumbling, your libraries may be closed, your class sizes may be unmanageably large, about 90% of you live in poverty and thousands of you are homeless, but who cares?

The Measure EE parcel tax on Tuesday’s ballot needed two-thirds approval and didn’t even get 50%. It would have cost the average homeowner about 75 cents a day. As supporters pointed out, California is in the bottom tier of funding per pupil nationally, and New York City schools spend about $8,000 more per student than L.A. Unified spends.

The response from Los Angeles was a shrug.

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Actually, it looks like roughly 90% of registered voters couldn’t be bothered to cast a ballot.

We’re left now to wonder if those massive rallies supporting striking teachers in January were a mirage, a dream or a cruel hoax designed to make the kids think people really cared about them.

Sure, L.A. supports teachers and students, but only until it costs us something.

And nice going, L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, which campaigned against EE, telling us what was wrong with it rather than leading the charge for something better.

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I can’t say I’m surprised about any of this. When I wrote last week about my chat with L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner and teachers union leader Alex Caputo-Pearl, who put their hopes in Measure EE as a way to add more teachers and support staff and reduce class sizes, I heard from no shortage of critics.

The district administration is inept, they carped. The union is corrupt and teacher benefits are bloated. Taxes are already too high. Parents are derelict. More money wouldn’t make a difference. Illegal immigration is bankrupting the district.

Mayor Eric Garcetti, Beutner and Caputo-Pearl miscalculated the depth of support for schools. It’s clear now that they guessed wrong on the right time to test it and were unable to energize their own troops. There were no rallies this time, no honking of horns and stopping of traffic. The revolution lost its nerve and its voice and died without a fight.

It probably didn’t help that teachers had argued during the strike that the district had a budget surplus, even though that margin will soon disappear. Nor did it help that the district approved a contract it said it couldn’t afford, then asked voters to pay for it after the fact.

The wording of EE was changed at the last minute, the individual impact was not entirely clear to everyone, and in an economy of flat wages and rising housing costs, lots of people are strapped.

But for all of that, an extra $500 million a year would have benefited students immediately and for the next 12 years, giving them a better shot at success and at going on to contribute in ways that benefit all of us. The bulk of that tax burden would have fallen on commercial property owners, and there would have been exemptions for seniors and people with disabilities.

And the alternative doesn’t look so great.

“It gets worse, not better,” said Beutner, who expects the budget surplus to be gone in 18 to 24 months. “We’ve scrambled to reduce some administrative and healthcare costs and grabbed a few nickels from the state, so maybe add another six months before the reckoning. Then class size grows, we have fewer nurses and librarians and so on.”

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As hopes for EE’s passage faded Tuesday night, an East L.A. grandmother told me she had voted yes, partly because she wants a nurse at her granddaughter’s school more than just once a week.

“This is a crisis,” said Maria Leon.

The principal of Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima, where nearly a quarter of the students were recently classified as homeless, told me he tried his best to counter social media attacks on Measure EE.

“Do I want to see my taxes go up? No,” said Jose Razo. “But I want to invest in the future of our kids, and $220 for me is a small price to pay to make class sizes smaller and bring back the things we so desperately need. I get it. It’s supposed to be the state that takes care of us. But until they get their act together, we have to do what we can for our kids.”

Glenn Sacks, a social studies teacher at James Monroe High School in North Hills, expressed his frustrated exhaustion as he watched the election news Tuesday night.

“I think as LAUSD has become so heavily minority, so heavily poor … the public feels it doesn’t have a stake in public education anymore, and they’re willing to let conditions deteriorate,” said Sacks, whose class sizes are as high as 41 students.

“People say don’t complain about class sizes, deport the illegals, you’re lousy teachers turning out a lousy product, and a lot of this is just nonsense. The kids I teach, I love them, and they learn, and I wouldn’t want to teach anyone else. But they start out so far behind the white middle-class kids they’re being compared to, inevitably they’re going to look like they’re not succeeding and we’re not succeeding, and I’m amazed that people can’t see through that.”

Sacks is framing the dark narrative here, the one that says a great deal about race and class in Los Angeles, and about practical and psychic distance between haves and have-nots. Most voters don’t send their kids to L.A. Unified schools, don’t venture into neighborhoods where the challenge for educators is greatest and never see firsthand the promise and possibility in the faces of those 600,000 children, 90% of whom are minorities.

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Absent that connection, cynicism comes easily, and it’s more convenient to complain about the wording or burden of a ballot measure than to stand with children who could use a little more help.

It’s easier to shrug, to vote no, to skip the election altogether and say sorry, kids, have a nice summer.


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