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Jewish Journal

LAUSD president gets lesson in partnership

by Charlotte Hildebrand

May 24, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Board of Education President Marlene Canter. Photo courtesy LAUSD

Board of Education President Marlene Canter. Photo courtesy LAUSD

When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa held a news conference on Friday, May 18, to announce his decision to end a yearlong legal battle to take control of Los Angeles schools, Board of Education President Marlene Canter was standing by his side.

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. "My Judaic background was based on political activism," Canter said. "I was raised to believe that change happens from being involved. My parents taught me you don't sit on the sidelines and complain."

Canter was overwhelmingly elected to the school board in 2001.

One of her first acts as board member was to travel around the city by bus, visiting the most overcrowded schools. Romer had just begun the $19.2 billion new construction project, with 150 new schools planned by 2012. By the time Canter was re-elected to another four-year term in 2005 and became board president, more than one-third of those schools had been built, relieving overcrowding and returning 98 elementary schools back to the traditional calendar year.

During the past six years, Canter has worked with parent leaders and individuals to recruit families back into their neighborhood elementary and middle schools.
"This is the biggest opportunity parents have ever had to really create neighborhood schools," Canter said. "We haven't been able to do that in a very long time. By 2012, we plan to have a neighborhood school in every neighborhood of Los Angeles."

Canter's critics have accused her of micromanaging the board to the detriment of the students. While she focused on laundry lists, critics said, developing policy to improve academic achievement went missing.

An audit of the school district by Evergreen Solutions of Florida seconded that view. The report criticized the poorly defined roles and responsibilities of the board and the superintendent, stating: "The governing body and individual board members are heavily involved in management operations and issues and not focused on policy."

According to Canter, many of those problems have already been resolved. Superintendent Brewer has met with the board on two different occasions to define their separate roles and responsibilities -- not in response to the audit but in response to the transition between two very different superintendents.

But for Canter to silence her critics, she will have to act quickly to implement reform policy that the district needs in order to move forward. And the mayor's reversal on AB 1381 may give her the chance to do that.

Last week's mayoral news conference, where Canter stood just to Villaraigosa's right, came following a slow détente between the two leaders.

The night before this year's March primary elections, Canter received a phone call at home from Villaraigosa. They had not spoken in seven months, while the mayor-backed bill, AB 1381, was in the courts waiting an appeal. Now four school board candidates favored by the mayor were running in the next day's election. He was calling to extend an olive branch.

"No matter what the outcome of this election," Villaraigosa told Canter, "I want to start working together."

"I'm delighted," Canter responded. "This is what I've been wanting for two years."

The mayor also pledged to help her and Brewer on two important bills: one in Sacramento that would affect the district's funding for the new school construction program, the other in Washington, D.C., concerning special education and coordinated testing standards in the No Child Left Behind program.

Soon after the elections -- in which the mayor's school board candidates won one, lost one and tied two -- Villaraigosa met with Canter and Brewer together for the first time. He reiterated that he wanted to work together.

Later that month, Canter and Brewer joined the mayor as part of a delegation traveling to Washington to meet with senators about No Child Left Behind. It was the first time that Canter, Brewer and Villaraigosa had been seen working together as a team. Their public appearance had enormous significance to Canter.

"It was a milestone," she said. "By meeting with us together, the mayor established a new tone and tenure for partnership. I felt encouraged."

On April 17, the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision, ruling for a second time that AB 1381 was unconstitutional. Canter was relieved, while the mayor spoke of a possible appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The following week, Villaraigosa, Canter and their staffs met in what those in attendance agree was a friendly meeting.

"Everyone was here in the best interest of the kids," said Marshall Tuck, 33, the former president of Green Dot Charter Schools and now head of the Mayor's Community Partnership for Excellence in the Schools. "They may have had their disagreements about AB 1381, but the mayor and the board president are both passionate about education."

In the May 15 runoff elections, the mayor gained two more seats on the school board with Tamar Galatzan and Richard Vladovic, both part of the mayor's reform platform. With Yolie Flores Aguilar, who was elected in March, and Monica Garcia, elected last year, Villaraigosa now has a 4-3 majority on the school board.

A few days after the election, the mayor announced his decision to drop his legal battles against Los Angeles Unified.

Canter is optimistic and enthusiastic about working with the mayor and his allies.

"I expect the same of everyone I work with, as long as we work together as a team," she said. "We have a huge job in front of us. The most critical issue is improving our schools."

The critical question is what will a partnership between the mayor and the school district look like now?

Canter would like to see the mayor use his full jurisdiction, to go beyond the three clusters of low-performing schools. Brewer has talked to Villaraigosa about establishing empowerment zones: literacy centers in housing projects, gang intervention in neighborhoods and parent and community involvement.Ironically, these are the fundamentals of AB 1381 that the mayor has always believed in.

"Community partnership was always a big part of AB 1381," Tuck said. "And I can assure you, the mayor is adamant about promoting parent involvement."

On the issue of parent involvement, the mayor and the board president can both agree.
"Every school has to have a great principal, and every classroom has to have a great teacher," Canter said. "But then you have to have a vibrant parent culture. When you have those three pieces all serving the students, then you have a great school. I can go to any of our new schools and say the same thing:

'Parents, you have to get involved.'"



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