October 21, 1999
Back to Basics
From the standpoint of Jewish community politics, the current crisis over the school board's efforts to impose real estate attorney Howard Miller's authority over that of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias may have only one positive, unintended consequence: reconfirming the Jewish interest in our public school system.
This is no small thing. In the last 20 or more years, since the Jewish community split over busing, the official organized bodies of the Jewish community have been demoralized, bewildered and otherwise silenced into inertia. It has been more than a decade since either the Jewish Federation or the American Jewish Committee had "education committees." Only weeks ago did the Jewish Community Relations Committee resurrect such a committee, which has met once.
Afraid to speak for any one faction, our leaders spoke for none, while the public schools declined.
And yet, as families and individuals we have stayed the course. Nearly 70 percent of all Jewish children are still in the public school system. As a mother of a public school student myself, I know firsthand that Jewish children are still in public elementary schools in great numbers. There is falloff in the middle schools, the perceived danger point of a student's life. Then, in high school, many students, far more than you think, come back.
Our public high schools -- Palisades and Taft, to name two -- have earned the respect of Jewish families by offering first-rate programs that get our children into the best American colleges -- every bit as good as elite private schools that cost $16,000 a year. Nor do Jewish public school students feel threatened: Witness the sukkah in the Santa Monica High School quad.
Jewish families are not fools, and neither are they all wealthy. They serve their children best by working hard for quality education, and public education can be that, even if it's out of style. One of many examples: Last week, in the midst of the worst crisis since busing, Los Angeles parents Carol Knee and Carol Singerman were kvelling about $2.5 million in new money the school board granted for an "advanced studies" program to benefit the 45,000 identified gifted students in the district.
The instincts of this community are solidly behind public schools. Those of us who send our children to private schools continue to vote for school bonds and for candidates committed to raising educational standards. Take, for instance, the extraordinary Jewish vote that helped Genethia Hayes defeat Barbara Boudreaux in the area which includes Pico-Robertson.
And still our organizations have pulled back. Lulled, perhaps, into self-confidence by the continued disproportionate presence of Jews on the City Council and school board, community leadership has forgotten that there's more to being a player in the urban scene than figuring out what's good for the Jews. The fact is, now when our voice is needed, we, as an organized community, are out of practice and losing our clout.
In the past, our Jewish community organizations provided a place where machers met to help solve key issues of the day. In the 1970s and 1980s, Howard Miller, today's man in the hot seat, served as a chair of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, a member of the Los Angeles School Board, and then as head of the local American Jewish Committee. That kind of synergy created real power (however temporary for Miller who lost his seat to the bus stop candidate, Roberta Weintraub), not merely a few activists in key seats.
Today, the most creative ideas on the politics of education are generated outside of traditional Jewish organizations. Steve Soberoff and David Abel, heading the oversight committee to disburse school construction money passed by Proposition BB, have created "New Schools, Better Neighborhoods," a wholesale reimagining of what is now called our "civic culture." The New Schools group is creating a dynamic coalition of homeowners, new immigrant families and business leaders to guide the creation of 100 new schools for Los Angeles, assuming the school district can calm down enough to apply for the building funds. One of the great tragedies of the current crisis over Zacarias is that the New Schools enterprise may be sacrificed to interethnic squabbling.
The interethnic politics should be outweighed by the largest interests of 700,000 students, 70 percent of them Latino. The Jewish community could be well-situated to make that case, if it has the nerve. To do so means insisting on quality education for all children; mediating between the board and Latino leaders, some of whom are ruffled by the perceived disrespect shown Zacarias, a local hero; and it means providing cool advice and support for school board President Genethia Hayes, a passionate leader who wants to make good on her promise to be a "new broom sweeping clean."
At an AJC meeting Thursday night held at Temple Isaiah, Hayes and board Vice President Valerie Fields made it clear that support was urgently needed.
"[The Jewish community] must organize," says Fields, who served in the Tom Bradley administration. "We must study the questions and advise the board like we used to do."
"We need to see your organizational presence at the board," Hayes said. "We need you to send letters and petitions saying you demand a climate of excellence. The Jewish community has a stake in democracy, and it has to stand by us now."
For a community that prides itself on activism, on being a behind-the-scenes player, on being a "bridge" between ethnic groups and a voice for public good, our failure to act has tragic consequences. It's time to get back to basics.
Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, this Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center. Her guests will be artists Eleanor Antin and Ruth Weisberg for a discussion "The Soul of the Artist."
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.