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For the L.A. Unified board

As elections approach for four of its seven seats, the Los Angeles Unified School District board can claim bragging rights to some significant changes since Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa got involved several years ago.

Before he became mayor, the board seemed frozen into inaction whenever the teachers union protested any reform, such as new charter schools. But the mayor-supported majority of the last few years has proved more agile at approving charters, which often provide a better education to students who otherwise would be forced to attend underperforming neighborhood schools. The board passed the Public School Choice initiative, which allows outside groups, whether charter organizations or teachers, to apply to run new or low-performing schools. A task force created by the board crafted a sane proposal for overhauling teacher evaluations; meanwhile, the district, with the backing of the board (and under legal pressure), is finally paying attention to the problem of seniority rules that cause disproportionate teacher layoffs at schools with impoverished students.

Yet reform agendas can be as simplistic and potentially damaging as a union agenda. Not all charter schools are excellent, and most of the good ones have the built-in advantage of drawing from a pool of more motivated students and parents. The answer to improving schools does not lie in replacing all of them with charters. Similarly, it is naive to suggest, as some reformers do, that teachers with bad attitudes have caused most of the educational problems of poor and minority students, and that the solution is to bring in younger, cheaper teachers and work them harder.

The board is just as prone to politicking and grandstanding today as it ever was, if not more. Its inclination to adhere to the mayor’s positions has brought progress but also some troubling decisions. Those include spending tens of millions of dollars that the district could not afford on health benefits for cafeteria workers who worked minimal hours. The board also has not held charter schools to the same standards it insists on for its own public schools; low-performing charters continue to operate.

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This is what happens when school leaders cling to ideologies and alliances rather than thinking independently to make decisions that benefit students. Sad to say, independence is also in short supply among the current school board candidates, most of whom align with either union priorities or the mayor’s reform agenda.

In interviews with all of the candidates, we found that two of those with more open-minded, nuanced views of education were simply too unaware of the major issues to become leaders of the school district. There are two strong candidates among the 10 who have good ideas and who think independently. Too bad they’re running for the same seat.

Overall, The Times is endorsing the reform candidates aligned with the mayor — not because we think they have the answer to what ails L.A. Unified but because they are better choices than their opponents. At least there have been some promising improvements in the schools because of the mayor’s influence. Continuing the forward momentum, even if it is done awkwardly and even if it includes some big mistakes, is better than returning to the past.

District 1: Eric P. Lee

In this district, which covers parts of South and Southwest Los Angeles, the division is sharply evident between incumbent Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte and challenger the Rev. Eric P. Lee, who is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles. LaMotte has been a reliable vote for the teachers union even when the interests of students clearly called for a different approach. She was the lone dissenting vote against Public School Choice, a reform that has given both committed teachers and outside groups a chance to turn schools around. She has also opposed charter applications that had clear merit, and she voted against a modest resolution calling for the state to ease the regulations on firing teachers accused of serious misconduct, such as molesting students.

We endorsed LaMotte in 2007, largely because her opponent had founded a charter school that took a multimillion-dollar loan from the district and then defaulted on it. The resulting conflict of interest was too extreme to overlook.

Lee is among the reform candidates who tends to cast school improvement in overly simple terms. We are concerned that he would be as gung-ho for charter schools, good or bad, as LaMotte is against them, but he is better informed about current education issues than LaMotte and would be a better advocate for students.

District 3: Tamar Galatzan

Too bad we can’t just move challenger Louis Pugliese to, say, District 1 or 5, where his expertise and nuanced, open-minded approach would make him the clear favorite. District 3, which covers the south and western San Fernando Valley, has a surfeit of strong candidates.

We endorsed Pugliese, a trainer of teachers, when he ran against Tamar Galatzan in 2007. At that point, Galatzan’s lack of knowledge about the schools was a real impediment. Pugliese’s focus on the quality of education in the classroom, rather than the organizational structure of school governance, would bring important new discussions to board meetings.

Over the past four years, though, Galatzan has grown into the job and, though she was one of the mayor’s picks, showed herself to be the most independent-minded member of the board, considering each issue on its merits. She supports charter schools but rightly wonders why underperforming charters are allowed to stay open. More important, she believes the district can use the lessons of charter schools — including their freedom from many regulations — to allow more public schools to turn themselves around.

Galatzan has earned another term. We hope that in addition to relying on her independent streak in deciding how to vote, she will take the initiative to become a leader on the board.

District 5: Luis Sanchez

As in District 1, voters have a choice between a union favorite, John Fernandez, a retired teacher, and reformer Luis Sanchez, a recreation and parks commissioner and aide to board President Monica Garcia, who carries the mayor’s water on the board. The third, independent candidate, Bennett Kayser, a teacher and community activist, showed in his interview that he has little familiarity with several major education issues, which should put him out of serious contention. The district stretches from Atwater Village to such southeast cities as Bell and Maywood.

This race is for the seat currently held by Yolie Flores, who emerged as a leader of thoughtful reform on the board but who is leaving after one term. Unfortunately, neither of the two leading candidates to replace her is likely to fill her shoes. Fernandez parrots the union line about how schools can improve despite rigid seniority and tenure protections as long as the district cuts enough money from its administrative budget. Sanchez lays out an equally predictable prescription for improving education through such reforms as college-prep requirements for all students, even though many students aren’t interested in college; the schools’ top priority should be to reduce dropout rates. To his credit, Sanchez voices a commitment to closing low-performing charters.

Sanchez is admirably knowledgeable about the issues and committed to improving school performance. He could be a strong voice for students if he follows his own counsel rather than casting votes to please the mayor or Garcia. He deserves a chance to show what he can do.

District 7: Richard Vladovic

Richard Vladovic, an incumbent board member, is frustrated by what he calls the overly slow pace of reform in the schools. That sounds a lot like the mayor. But Vladovic, a former schools administrator, also has been willing to cast lone votes on the board and shows a keen understanding of the complications of reform — for example, he believes that standardized test scores should be considered in teacher evaluations but should not be a dominant factor. He is a strong advocate for the largely poor and minority students in his district, which extends from Watts to the harbor area.

Vladovic does not have a strong opponent. Independent candidate Roye Love, a longtime schools volunteer, is not up to speed on key issues. Jesus Escandon, an employee of the California Teachers Assn., spouts straight union rhetoric. Parents should be empowered, he told The Times, but only after “a process” of several years during which they have been properly educated about schools. Parents whose children aren’t learning to read don’t have several years to follow Escandon’s unspecified “process.” We prefer Vladovic’s impatience.


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