Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's effort to seize control of the Los Angeles Unified School District has been attacked as a power grab. Actually, it is the logical outcome of decades of Latino battles to save the schools -- not just for Hispanics, but for everybody.
By everybody, I mean everybody, including the dwindling number of Jews in the L.A. public schools.
The Jewish exodus began with a busing controversy three decades ago, and has continued. Urban scholar Joel Kotkin noted in The Jewish Journal last year that flight among affluent Westside families is great, while in the more middle-class San Fernando Valley, Jews "would like to be able to send their kids to public schools." But they won't if the schools are lousy.
Yet the Jewish community has been fairly silent on this issue. Where's the voice of the middle-class Jew, confronted with rising private school tuition?
Jews have long believed that every kid has a right to good public schools, from kindergarten through high school. That should be as true today as it was during the great immigration of the 19th and early 20th centurise.
Now as then, the schools must be good enough to send young men and women on to college, or to skilled jobs. If we don't have such schools, Los Angeles will become a city of the educated well-off and the uneducated poor, not the haven for the working class and middle class that it was not so many years ago.
Nobody believes this more than Latinos. A few weeks ago, I took a group of USC students to the adult school at Huntington Park High School, in a community that is 99 percent Latino. You should have heard the stories: Men and women, who work 12-hour days at minimum wage, coming in every night for English classes or to get their high school diploma. They believe in the American dream. They know education is the only way to move up.
I saw that when I started writing about the Latino community more than 30 years ago. In every meeting and conversation and poll about politics, education was the No. 1 issue. But the barriers were huge. I heard story after story about smart kids shunted off to shop classes by counselors who thought that's where Mexicans belong, in the unofficially segregated schools of the era.
This was on my mind last week when I drove to Chinatown to drop in at a fundraiser for David Tokofsky, a Jewish school board member who represents a largely Latino district.
Tokofsky, an outspoken and articulate Spanish-speaking ex-teacher, is a shining example of how public school education cuts across ethnic lines. But he goes his own way and offended former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and his pal, philanthropist Eli Broad -- both excessively fond of yes men. When they financed a campaign to defeat the feisty Tokofsky in 2003, my Times colleague, the late Frank del Olmo, asked in his column: "Are Latino education activists confident enough to let a white man with a solid record as an advocate for better schools remain in office even if he is not Latino?"
The voters' answer was a solid yes, choosing Tokofsky over a Latina. Now Tokofsky is raising money, gauging support and deciding whether to run for another term next year. If he does, it will be tough. Tokofsky opposes Villaraigosa's school plan. The mayor is not a forgive-and-forget kind of guy.
"I salute him for his absolute impatience," Tokofsky said of the mayor. But he said the mayor is too impatient. Tokofsky said he favors "incremental, constructive change" as practiced by the district's outgoing superintendent, Roy Romer, a capable administrator and smart political tactician and a former governor of Colorado.
Tokofsky had made this point June 6 on KCET's "Life and Times," when he said, "Superintendent Romer came in and he brought some peace and some progress on the construction and on the academic piece. What we now need to do is accelerate." Speaking of increasing the mayor's power, he said, "I've never called City Hall and found it to be a model of efficiency, whether I'm trying to get scum cleaned up in my house or get the trash taken care of."
Tokofsky and I talked about his role as a Jew representing a largely Latino community. He sees his work on the school board on behalf of his working-class and middle-class constituents as "a continuation of that same Jewish dedication to education." With the exception of some who send their children to parochial schools, his constituents don't have the private school option. As a result, they have an intense interest in improving the system.
It is an interest with a history. I met a man named Sal Castro at the fundraiser who reminded me of the history. Castro, once a young teacher at Lincoln High School, was a leader of a huge student strike in 1968 called the East L.A. Blowouts. Students from five heavily Mexican high schools -- Lincoln, Roosevelt, Garfield, Wilson and Belmont -- walked out in protest against poor teaching and counseling, overcrowded, poorly maintained schools and a system determined to consign them to industrial education classes, also known as shop and sewing.
"We knew we were second-class citizens then," said Castro, who has retired from teaching. Even now, he said, "we know they still don't want to give us an education."
That feeling, going back decades, impelled Roosevelt High School grad Villaraigosa, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who grew up in San Diego's Logan Heights barrio, and other Latino leaders to back the mayor's plan to assume considerable power in running the system and deprive the existing school board of much of its authority. Latino support was crucial to passage of the bill, which was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday. Significantly, none of the top school district officials were present at the signing ceremony.
I can understand why the school board opposes Villaraigosa. Nobody wants to give up power. Serving on the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission has taught me a lesson in serving on a board without much power.
But I've watched the school board waste its power on ceaseless micromanaging of the small details of school life. Torture was having to cover a school board meeting. Putting authority -- but not absolute authority -- in the hands of the mayor will certainly centralize responsibility.
I'm sure the mayor's plan isn't perfect, but nothing is. It's worth a chance. It's worth an effort by every one concerned -- parents, teachers, administrators, students, every Angeleno -- to make it work,
An improved Los Angeles school district will help all of working-class and middle-class Los Angeles, including us Jews. In the words of the old cliché, a rising tide lifts all boats.
Bill Boyarsky's column on Jews and civic life appears each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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