Finally, a Sense of Hope

Despite political maneuvering by outgoing board members, the new reform majority at L.A. Mummified is planning to shake things up big-time.

Watching four new reformers get sworn in to their jobs as Los Angeles school-board members last week in a splashy standing-room-only outdoor ceremony attended by many of the city’s political elite made me practically weep with relief.

I cannot recall the last time L.A. voters shrugged off every slimy appeal to their racial identity, union solidarity, gay empowerment, blah, blah, blah, and just simply decided to elect the right people. If this newly elected school-board majority, which includes Genethia Hayes, Mike Lansing, David Tokofsky, and Caprice Young, does what it promised, I will have to give up my beloved L.A. Mummified nickname and find another incompetent group of powermongers to constantly bash and belittle.

The first sign of a new day came when Hayes was introduced, prompting a standing ovation of 500 people unlike anything the district bureaucrats have seen in 20 years of plunging test scores among students (not to mention plunging IQs among school-board members). Speaking like a seasoned stateswoman, Hayes vowed, to huge cheers, that she would “be the biggest advocate for children that this city has ever known!” I don’t think there was a person in the audience who disbelieved.

Caprice Young, a young mother who is eight months pregnant with her second child, pounded away on the theme that L.A. children will only gain self-confidence and success “through the acquisition of skills–and tough goals.” Though she was polite, Young was obviously slamming the district’s widespread practice of promoting “self-esteem” among poor and minority kids while skills-based academics are systematically withheld.

David Tokofsky, emotionally thanking teachers and elders who inspired him, somberly spoke of the “deep crisis” in L.A. schools where test scores hover near the 20th percentile, and 50 percent of kids eventually just drop out. Mike Lansing (who I predict will be the sleeper success of the school board–you heard it here first), was interrupted by applause seven times. A longtime private school teacher, he was riveting when he warned L.A. Unified employees who are already plotting to resist upcoming reforms: “If you get in the way, we will run over you like a speed bump.”

Jesus, Lansing, you want to write my column while I go on vacation? This event was so important, so different from anything I have seen involving the city’s public school system that it attracted a retinue of power players, many of whom never venture onto the grounds of the district headquarters. They included:

Urban League President John Mack (who was beaming); LEARN President Mike Roos (who was telling some poor sucker that LEARN’s record of barely boosting academic achievement is actually a big success); a large contingent from the ACLU; L.A. County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras; city council members Alex Padilla, Mark Ridley-Thomas, and Rudy Svorinich (who sat down right next to me in all his Rudy-ness and proceeded to audibly trash City Attorney James Hahn and his sister Janice Hahn and the owners of a church Svorinich wants torn down so his developer pals can build something or other; Svorinich loudly blamed the Hahn siblings for standing in his way and kept sputtering: “He is our City Attorney!” Our attorney!); multimillionaire school reformer Bill Siart (who was beaming); Deputy Mayor Noelia Rodriguez (also beaming); L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and wife Barbara (ditto).

After observing this show of support from the power elite, I thought of celebrating a bit, too–by enjoying a bottle of champagne or maybe splurging on a shiatsu full-body massage. I was feeling practically gleeful that board president Vickie Castro had about a nanosecond left to enjoy her title, and indeed the new board soon elected Hayes to succeed her. I was thinking how sweet victory tastes.

Then I ruined the moment by asking somebody in the crowd, “So, what’s thenews?” The rumor sweeping through the audience–especially among the media–was that the four new board members are already plotting to undermine Superintendent Ruben Zacarias in a shadowy power game supposedly led by Mayor Richard Riordan.

This is complete bunk, but a lot of antireformers think they can diminish the new board’s effectiveness by tainting it from day one. The rumor started after Senator Richard Polanco held a press conference two weeks ago and demanded that the outgoing school board hurriedly give Zacarias a special one-year contract extension through June 2001, under the sad old reasoning that Latino pride was at stake. County Supervisor Gloria Molina then joined in, and the ethnic pressuring worked. The outgoing school board voted to give Zacarias the extra year, even though he just got a C grade from the same board members.

I find it amusing that the extra year was pushed most strenuously by slack-jawed, do-nothing, outgoing board member George Kiriyama. I have never seen Kiriyama move so fast, even for a bathroom break. Notably, Kiriyama was promised a job as a principal by Zacarias just a few days before. Eerie coincidence?

Even more sickening is embittered school board member Jeff Horton, who told a lot of people he would never give Zacarias a contract extension. Then, angry at the Hollywood/Echo Park/Studio City voters who ousted him, Horton flip-flopped and voted for an extra year of Zacarias.

What is supercreep Horton up to now? Supervisor Molina, whose legendarily poor diet is now apparently addling her brain, appointed Horton to the L.A. County Board of Education, where he can bother all the poor kids stuck in that sorry system. Horton reminds me of a cannibal-zombie from Night of the Living Dead who cannot be destroyed.

What is the reason for Molina’s outrageous appointment? It’s a bit circuitous, but stay with me: When Horton got ousted from the city school board (losing by a lopsided margin to Caprice Young), he immediately faced losing his influential post as a board member of the statewide lobbying group, the California School Boards Association. This special interest group requires its board members to also be sitting members of a local school board. Molina handed Horton the L.A. County School Board job so Horton wouldn’t lose his state-level lobbying gig.

Do I need to spell out the rest? Right after Molina saved Horton’s sorry butt from unemployment–albeit on the backs of poor kids–Horton voted to give Zacarias the extra year on the job, just as Molina had wanted.

Shouldn’t somebody go to jail for all this shamelessly obvious quid pro quo? Thankfully, ousted board members Horton, Kiriyama, and Barbara Boudreaux did not show their faces at last week’s gala swearing in. But former board member Mark Slavkin–who spent years doing nothing and fainting away in fear every time serious classroom reform was suggested–did attend. Somehow, Slavkin has wheedled his way into a top political liaison job with the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, or LAAMP, which has spent millions of dollars from the Annenberg Foundation to no effect because its teacher training in L.A. is controlled by ideologues who back whole language, fuzzy math, and other faddish silliness. LAAMP’s board includes many business leaders who are also founders of the Committee on Effective School Governance, which has the ear of the school board and business community and is supposed to be wise to quashing the ideologues.

But now, my sources tell me, these influential business leaders actually like Slavkin. They should pay better attention to their snooze alarms. Slavkin is one leopard who has not changed his spots. Somebody needs to show him the back door before he kills the momentum for reform with his equivocating, buck-passing, ingratiating, capitulating personality.

This is a rare moment in which the stars are finally aligned, and there’s precious little room for screwups like that at the top. While the untrue rumors swirl that the new board is out to dump Zacarias, the truth is that the four new reformers all express an almost desperate desire to ensure that Zacarias succeeds. If he fails, and state-required Stanford 9 test scores remain in the toilet, the board will have to consider a politically ugly “buy-out” of Zacarias, followed by a lengthy nationwide search for a proven reformer superintendent.

In other words, if Zacarias fails under this new board, it means a very long delay in real classroom reform for children.

“We are going to give Dr. Zacarias more power, money, autonomy, and accountability than he has ever dreamed of,” says one of the reformers, echoing the others. “I am praying that he is the one. We will know soonenough.” Better pray hard. Last week, as the four reformers were sworn in, news hit that the county grand jury has found that Zacarias’ program to end bilingual education is a sham that defies Proposition 227 and does not teach English to L.A.’s Spanish-speaking immigrant kids.

The grand jury attacked Zacarias’ “Model B” program into which thousands of Latino children are being herded, often against the wishes of the parents. Model B does not teach English reading and writing to kids, the grand jury found. It teaches Spanish. All day long. Just like the disastrous “bilingual” education approach that voters recognized as a big fat lie and threw out.

Alice Callaghan, the superwoman skid row minister who has dedicated her life to helping Latino immigrants and who joined Ron Unz to pass Proposition 227, tells me the grand jury findings “are explosive. Los Angeles Unified is openly breaking the law. Our immigrant kids are getting left behind while the immigrant kids who live in other cities are learning English under Proposition 227.”

Despite such bleak news, I think the four reformers can change things dramatically for the better. Zacarias is not a bad man; he is merely a weak man. He needs to be told by the board that it’s not right to let immigrant kids languish, no matter how much ethnic whining he hears from adults in L.A. Mummified. He needs to be told he can fire incompetents, no matter whose cousin they are in the nepotism-infested school district. He needs to be told it’s his job to implement teaching reforms like San Diego’s three-hours-per-day reading lessons in grade school, no matter how loudly union leader Day Higuchi protests.

I finally went out and got that shiatsu massage and champagne I’d been thinking about. I told my editor I was “working.” The celebrating left me with a strange and unfamiliar euphoria that seemed to last right into the weekend. After a while, I finally recognized the odd sensation. It was hope.

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