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Pedro Noguera: Why LA’s low voter turnout will deny a high-quality education to those who need it most

Guest contributor | March 1, 2017

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By Pedro Noguera

Turnout is expected to be low for the March 7 primary election even though the results may very well determine the future of public education in Los Angeles. The nation’s second-largest school district is beset by a number of complex challenges: daunting structural budget deficits, declining student enrollment, a significant number of underperforming schools, a shortage of teachers in critical subject areas, and an expansion of charter schools that is contributing to declining enrollment. The upcoming election will determine how these issues will be addressed and whether public education as we’ve known it will continue in LA.

The expected low turnout for the election is indicative of other problems facing the school district and LA generally. Part of the problem is obviously the date. Many eligible voters are not paying attention to local races even though the mayor, city council and several important ballot measures are also on the ballot. 

Another factor may very well be that a relatively small portion of eligible voters actually believes they have something at stake in the future of public education in Los Angeles. As the cost of housing has skyrocketed in LA, large numbers of working-class families with children have been forced to move out of the city. The newcomers are more likely to be affluent and less likely to enroll their children in public schools. As is true in every major American city, public schools in LA are segregated (de facto not de jure) by race and class and largely serve poor people of color.

Yet, while Latino and African-American parents have the most at stake in this election, voter turnout in these communities has historically been low, and as such, the issues that concern them most may not receive the attention they need and deserve.

The school board race, particularly in District 4 where incumbent Steve Zimmer is running against three opponents, has clearly generated the most intense interest and campaign contributions. Ironically, many of the parents who send their children to schools in the district won’t be able to vote on the candidates who will represent their schools because most live outside of the district.   

Even if they could vote on the candidates, figuring out who to vote for might be difficult. There has been a steady stream of misleading advertisements that have inundated voters in the district, distorting the positions of the candidates with misinformation and in some cases, out-right lies.

To the degree that voter confusion is an issue, it may also be related to the fact that in their public remarks the candidates don’t seem to be very far apart on key issues.

At a recent candidates forum held at UCLA, all four District 4 candidates stated that they supported charter schools while insisting that they must be held accountable.  They all strongly oppose President Trump’s escalation of deportations of undocumented immigrants and have pledged to do all they can to keep LA students safe from ICE. They are not intimidated by the ballooning budget deficit and have pledged to address it with sound fiscal management. Finally, they all love teachers and profess a willingness to work cooperatively with the UTLA. 

Though the exchanges were at times testy, the overall tone of the debate was civil.  When I asked UCLA students after the debate what they thought of the candidates, most commented on their style, the manner in which they expressed themselves and the persuasiveness of their arguments. Despite having studied the candidates and their positions prior to the forum, most admitted that they couldn’t tell where the candidates really stood on the key issues or even where they differed.

UCLA is in District 4, and while voter turnout in off-cycle elections is generally low, students could play a decisive role in selecting the next board member, if they cared enough to vote.  

Lack of interest in the state of public education is really the larger issue facing public schools in LA. Eligible voters and even Mayor Garcetti, who has said more about the 2020 Olympics than he has about the school board race and education generally, don’t seem to care enough to weigh in on this election even though it may very well determine the future of the school district.

Millions of dollars have been raised by powerful interest groups (e.g. UTLA) and individuals, including former LA Mayor Richard Riordan and several individuals from outside California. Clearly, there are some who recognize that a lot is at stake in this election. However, it is not at all clear that those who rely on the system the most to educate their children will get what they need — a high-quality education — after the votes have been cast.

It is sad and ironic that in a city that voted overwhelmingly against Trump in the last election and where most voters are opposed to the policies of his administration, that the voters and civic leaders cannot do more to support the public schools. 

Last December I asked a group of civic leaders how many had attended LA public schools. The majority raised their hands. When I asked how many would put their children in those schools now, almost no hands were raised. 

How could it be that a district that once served a broad cross-section of the public and provided an education that made it possible for so many to improve their lives is unable to do so now? That is the real issue facing schools in LA.

Despite the money being spent on the school board race, it is highly unlikely that a path to improvement will emerge after the March election. 

Pedro Noguera is Professor of Education at UCLA.

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