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California ed advocate Bill Lucia on the importance of school board races, local control and closing the achievement gap

Mike Szymanski | March 14, 2017

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Bill Lucia EdVoice

Bill Lucia is president of EdVoice. (Courtesy of EdVoice)

Local school boards can be prone to blaming their woes on decisions coming out of Sacramento or saying their hands are tied by the California Board of Education. But the state no longer pulls the strings and local districts wield significant power, a California education advocate says.

“The days of micromanaging are gone,” said Bill Lucia, president of the educational advocacy group EdVoice. “The responsibility is now for local districts to focus on helping kids and closing achievement gaps.”

Lucia spoke of the importance of local school boards when asked by LA School Report about his perspective on the LA Unified school board race, which is on track to become the most expensive such race in the nation.

“For some people around the country, that may be a head scratcher,” Lucia said. “Some may say, ‘Wow, important things are going on if it’s that big of a deal,’ and some may say, ‘Why are they focusing that much attention when they’re going around in circles?’”

But given the impact of local school boards now, Lucia said he isn’t surprised that’s where the dollars flow.

“With what has happened in Washington and what is going on at the state level, it seems that advocacy is now centered at the local level and it’s in the classroom where things are being done,” Lucia said. “We are moving away from several constrictive a la carte menu options for kids.”

EdVoice’s PACs are significant funders in statehouse races but have not contributed to the outside money pouring into the LA Unified races.

Lucia spent five years in Washington, D.C., working as a senior official in the U.S. Department of Education. In California, Lucia was executive director of the California Board of Education, chief consultant to the Assembly Education Committee and an education consultant to the Senate Republican Caucus. He was also senior vice president for advocacy of the California Charter Schools Association and served on its legal defense team.

He said the recent revocation of accountability rules by the U.S. Senate shows how state and federal governments are emphasizing more local control.

But the state is still figuring out its role. He added, “The state Board of Education is going through significant pains, things still need to be determined.”

Through the Local Control Funding Formula, Gov. Jerry Brown has helped give more control to school districts, Lucia pointed out.

“There are some gray-haired policy folk up here though who think it was like it was in the 1960s when Pat Brown (Gov. Jerry Brown’s father) was governor,” Lucia said. “That’s not the same school system as it is now.”

He said the LCFF program under the governor’s leadership “gives an obligation for local communities to address and provide extra help for education. The local districts have to embrace parents and local stakeholders, and they have a lot of flexibility now.”

The charter/anti-charter division at school boards, which is fueling much of the outside spending in the LA Unified school board race, is not the right focus, Lucia said. He said EdVoice is agnostic about the structure and governance of schools.

“The question is not whether it’s charter or not charter, the question is if it’s adults or kids in charge,” Lucia said. “Is it about a bunch of adults fighting? We all should be about systems that work to close achievement gaps.

“We have a student population where 60 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch and if we don’t have intentional policies in education, whether it’s for traditional public school or charter public school, that’s a problem,” Lucia said. “If it’s not working, it needs to be changed.”

He added, “We need to hold everybody accountable.”

He said the infighting isn’t helping anyone.

“It would be nice if there was a détente — and not mutually assured destruction — with a commitment of working together for the good of children.”

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