Candidates for mayor take different tacks on education


Los Angeles city government faces a litany of problems, from yawning pension liabilities to poorly paved roads. But few threaten long-term prosperity as much as education, and the ability of the city’s public schools to produce an educated, taxpaying workforce.

Though the mayor plays no official role in running the schools, voters frequently name education as their top priority in picking the city’s chief executive. And Los Angeles’ top elected official in recent years has increasingly tried to exert influence, with mixed results. Education advocates say the future of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where more than one in five students drop out, is dependent on the mayor playing a significant and singular role.

But some say the candidates vying to become Los Angeles’ next mayor are just now beginning to do more than pay lip service to the matter.


“I don’t think there’s been a broad enough or deep enough conversation about education reform, or a kids-first agenda,” said Ben Austin, executive director of the Parents Revolution, who is heartened by the fact that the discussions now taking place would have been unheard of four years ago. “Candidates have answered bits and pieces, but the fundamental question is, are you going to make every decision about LAUSD policy through the lens you would make that same decision if it affected your own child?”

Some are more blunt, saying that the candidates are merely focusing on buzz words rather than substance.

“It’s about power and politics rather than curriculum and instruction. It’s about getting elected, not kids learning,” said former school board member David Tokofsky. The candidates’ education platforms are “about polling and being safe rather than a city and nation at risk.”

Former Mayor Richard Riordan is credited as the first to truly try to leave a mark on the city’s schools, and current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched an aggressive drive to remake the district. His efforts were bold and controversial, but his bid to take over the district failed. Since then, he has used political capital to shape the school board, and his nonprofit organization took control of 13 campuses and opened two more.

Of the top contenders in the race to replace the termed-out Villaraigosa, none would follow his exact path.

The two candidates believed to be the most likely to make the runoff — Councilman Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Greuel — share many positions on education. Both pledge to advocate for increased funding for the classroom, and support school choice, the use of students’ test scores in evaluating teachers — although they decline to specify how much weight they should carry — and the ability of charter-school teachers to organize. They, like all of the mayoral candidates, support the retention of Supt. John Deasy, who has sought to change the way teachers are evaluated and fired, even though it has frequently put him at odds with the district’s powerful teachers’ union.


But there are shades of difference in rhetoric and priorities.

At a time when there are marked battles over what role bargaining groups should have in shaping school policy, Garcetti, who is backed by United Teachers Los Angeles as well as the California Federation of Teachers, has kept a more conciliatory tone about the matter. He has repeatedly spoken out against the “bullying” of teachers and the need to focus on what unites teachers’ unions and reform advocates rather than the few issues that divide them. But his refusal to fully back the parent-trigger law, which allows parents to petition to overhaul a failing school, has led some to question whether his position was swayed by his union supporters.

Garcetti sought to push back at that portrayal during a United Way mayoral forum on education Wednesday, taking positions that are likely to irk union leadership, such as calling for teachers who excel to receive merit pay, while also taking positions supported by the union, such as backing school board member Steve Zimmer in his reelection bid.

“The teachers union … they’re not going anywhere. I’ve disagreed with UTLA on plenty of things, on [laying off teachers based on] seniority, on parent trigger, on other things that are important,” Garcetti said. “But at the same time, I want to be a bridge back, because if we don’t have teachers and quote-unquote reformers working together, we aren’t going to succeed.”

Garcetti and City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who is also running for mayor, prioritize the importance of making schools community centers with services not only for children but for their families. Perry said she has seen the benefits — both to student achievement and parental participation — in the new schools that have opened in South Los Angeles.

“Now you see parents walking children to and from school, staying after school, participating in after-school activities,” she said. “This is one way to pull test scores upward and build the community from the ground up.”

That is in contrast to Greuel, who is heavily focused on local decision-making and frequently cites her experiences at the affiliated charter school her son attends, where a panel of parents and teachers make decisions about leadership, curriculum and priorities along with the district.


“There’s a lot of talk of everything around schools,” she said. “I’ll tell you the most important thing … is what’s happening in the schools and those classrooms and with the principals.”

Greuel accused Garcetti of changing his positions on education because of mounting pressure.

“He waits and waits and waits, and gets pushed in a corner and makes a decision,” Greuel said, adding that Garcetti had hardened his stance on parent trigger and on school board President Monica Garcia. “When we’re talking about education for the future of Los Angeles, we need someone who stands up and says this is the direction we’re going in.”

The candidates who are trying to get into the runoff have made some of the more aggressive proposals. Perry would seek to create a non-voting seat on the school board, a legislative endeavor that could take years. Republican Kevin James is the most skeptical of Deasy and the district, and would set up a clearinghouse in the mayor’s office for parents who are having problems with the district but are afraid to speak out because of fear of retribution.

James, who also called for the creation of a vocational diploma for students who are not college-bound, is the sole candidate to say he would raise money for school board candidates. That comes closest to Villaraigosa, who worked to get his choices elected to the school board and sought out New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $1-million donation to fund a campaign on behalf of three board candidates.

Although the other mayoral candidates say they would endorse in school races, none of them have said they would be nearly as involved.


“That’s not the mayor’s job,” said Emanuel Pleitez in response to a Los Angeles Times questionnaire. “If the mayor spent his energy on our students instead of political game playing, our graduation rate would be better.”

Perry also said she doubted she would be as involved.

“I don’t know that I’d spend a lot of time looking for people to run,” she said in an interview. “I’m not interested in being the one who chooses. I’d like to see who runs and see who’s good and support that person.... As far as having some group of people, ‘I need you to lean left, lean right,’ I wouldn’t want to do that.”

That is a similarity that John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education & Access at UCLA, sees in all of the contenders for mayor.

“Everybody has highlighted the importance of education and at least Garcetti and Greuel and Perry too have talked about the importance of more funds,” he said. But “none of them, as far as I can tell, have asserted the same sort of robust role that Mayor Villaraigosa took on after he became mayor.”

A strong advocate at City Hall is vital, said Gary Gitnick, founder of the Fulfillment Fund.

“Generally in the past, we’ve always said the mayor’s role here is simply to use his bully pulpit, that is to advocate widely and loudly,” he said. “But the truth is, I believe that to get this accomplished and not just have another effort with another commission or committee that meets and talks and writes and nothing happens, you really need true leadership.”