May 24, 2007
LAUSD president gets lesson in partnership
The show of unity -- Canter and Villaraigosa talking about shared goals and aspirations -- is a recent development.
Canter has been one of the mayor's most vociferous critics, leading the fight against Villaraigosa's attempt to wrest power from a school board he saw as ineffective. For Canter, that fight has been a major distraction from working with the mayor on educational reform.
A former special education teacher who ran a teacher training consulting business, Canter got into school politics in 2001, after she was inspired into civic activity while studying Talmud at her Pacific Palisades synagogue.
However, her impetus toward tikkun olam, repairing the world, got tangled in the fight over control of the school district, which began in her second term as board president.
Criticized by some as a micromanager who neglected policy, Canter is now eager to get back to the work of building on the promise of improvement that a partnership with the mayor holds for the 710,000 students of the beleaguered Los Angeles Unified School District.
The mayor's turnaround came, in part, because an appellate court declared Villaraigosa's attempted legislative takeover of the school board unconstitutional. Then, this month's school board elections gave the mayor a 4-3 majority of allies on the seven-member body, which further helped him decide not to take the case to the California Supreme Court.
While the new makeup of the school board provides Villaraigosa some measure of control over L.A. schools, he nevertheless will have nowhere near the authority he sought when he announced his takeover plans in his State of the City address in April 2006.
At that time, he outlined a plan, framed in bill AB 1381, that he would bring to the Legislature. The bill proposed a transfer of power away from the school board and into the hands of the schools superintendent and allowed a newly established Mayor's Community Partnership for School Excellence to oversee a cluster of the Los Angeles Unified School District's lowest performing schools.
Canter had always believed in relationship building, and so when she met with Villaraigosa a few months after he set his plan in motion, she reached out for another way to proceed.
"I never felt I needed legislation to build a partnership," she told the mayor.
However, she made no headway, and soon the board president was in a no-holds-barred stalemate with the mayor's office. Since AB 1381 was barreling forward despite zero communication with her, Canter had no choice but to take her fight to Sacramento.
For the next 15 weeks, Canter traveled to the state capitol, accompanied by her chief of staff, Samira Estilai, to share with legislators the LAUSD story. Few were aware that LAUSD had built 65 new schools, the first in 30 years, or that achievement test scores had risen steadily for the last six years. Still, the persistent problems of low-performing schools, a 75 percent graduation rate -- 50 percent according to the mayor -- and a widening achievement gap were addressed.
"Everyone agreed that changes in the school district had not come fast enough or good enough," Estilai said, "but Marlene wanted to make the point that change for the sake of change was not good either."
In spite of Canter's attempts, the Legislature passed the bill on Aug. 29, and in September, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law. In October, the school district filed suit.
While the mayor traveled in Asia during November, the board unanimously elected retired Vice Admiral David L. Brewer III to be the new superintendent, replacing Roy Romer. Canter had led the search committee and felt optimistic about the board's decision: Brewer had strong organizational and management skills, two things the district desperately needed.
But relations between Canter and the mayor deteriorated after Brewer was hired. Then in December, Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs struck down AB 1381, calling it unconstitutional.
In January, the mayor appealed.
Canter, 58, who has a crown of wavy brown hair and the determined expression of a fighter, wasn't always so assertive.
As a young, 20-something special education teacher, she was stymied by how to discipline her students, something her professors hadn't taught in college. She rose to prominence in educational circles after she co-wrote a best seller with her social worker husband, Lee Canter, titled, "Assertive Discipline," in 1976.
Its popularity led to their consulting business, Canter and Associates, which the couple ran for 25 years and which became the basis for a teacher training program that has influenced more than a million teachers on how to better manage their classrooms.
After a divorce and the sell-off of their company, Canter spent a year studying Talmud at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation, under Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben. Canter and another student, Adlai Wertman, met each morning in the rabbi's study and discussed how they could better the world.
Wertman remembers the day Canter came into the study and announced, "I'm going to run for the school board."
"I have no doubt that the study of Talmud was an important factor in her decision," said Wertman, who now runs Chrysalis, a nonprofit homeless service. "Marlene's Judaism has a lot to do with tikkun olam."
Canter's campaign for District 4 -- an area that runs from the Valley to the Westside and all the way to the Pacific -- reached out to parents who sought a role in their children's education. Her friends and supporters believe Canter ran for the school board, in part, because as a young mother, she did not have the know-how or skills to get involved in her own children's education. Both her children attended private schools.
Canter's parents moved from Brooklyn after World War II to settle in Culver City, where her mother taught school and her father repaired refrigerators. Both were active in the labor movement and were members of the Workmen's Circle, where Canter attended the kinder-shulns and spoke Yiddish. Later, she attended Culver City High School.