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The Los Angeles election is upcoming, and the mayoral candidates are using their stances on education to differentiate themselves: City Councilman Eric Garcetti has the backing of the teachers union and says he wants to unite the union and "reformers"; City Controller Wendy Greuel advocates for local decision-making; and Jan Perry wants to create a non-voting seat on the LAUSD board.
Although the mayor plays no official role in running the schools, citizens nonetheless frequently cite education as their number one priority when voting for city mayor, and previous L.A. mayors have attempted to use their influence to change education policy.
And when more than one in five students drop out of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), education advocates believe that the district’s future is dependent upon the mayor taking an active role in improving L.A. education.
"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," said Gary Gitnick, founder of the Fulfillment Fund. "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."
Former Mayor Richard Riordan is credited as the first to make a strong attempt to improve the city's schools, and current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made a controversial bid to gain control of the LAUSD, although the attempt failed. Since then, however, he has used his influence to shape the school board, and his nonprofit organization The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools now manages 22 of L.A.’s high-needs schools.
Garcetti and Greuel - long seen as the front-runners of the race – share many similar stances 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, and the ability of charter school teachers to organize.
Garcetti is backed by United Teachers Los Angeles as well as the California Federation of Teachers.
"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 during a United Way mayoral forum on education last week. "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, along with fellow mayoral candidate and current City Councilwoman Jan Perry, agree on the importance of making schools community centers, providing services for children and their families. Perry said she has seen this approach work for new schools that have opened in South Los Angeles, and that it helps to improves student achievement and increase parental involvement.
"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."
Greuel advocates for local decision-making, frequently citing her positive experiences at the 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," Greuel said. "I'll tell you the most important thing … is what's happening in the schools and those classrooms and with the principals."
Some are concerned that best interests are at the heart of the candidates’ talk, however.
“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 nonprofit Parent Revolution, who helped parents use the parent-trigger law to attempt to overtake McKinley Elementary in Compton and Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, both LAUSD failing schools. “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?”
Former school board member David Tokofsky believes that the candidate’s education platforms are about polling and “being safe” rather than about truly improving education. “It’s about power and politics rather than curriculum and instruction. It’s about getting elected, not kids learning,” he said.
John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education & Access at UCLA, would like to see the candidates take on more active roles in affecting education policy.
"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. However, “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."