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Education in LA in 2017: 5 things to watch

Sarah Favot | January 6, 2017

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Cute little kid drawing new year 2017 with painting brush on wall background

As LA Unified students return to school on Monday, here’s a look ahead at what will be happening in education in Los Angeles in 2017.


“We are spending more money than we are taking in,” the superintendent of the nation’s second-largest school district, Michelle King, said at her first “State of the District” address in August.

The district’s finances will be a major issue for LA Unified in 2017.

Before the close of 2016, the district notified county and state officials that it faces a cumulative deficit of $1.46 billion through the 2018-19 school year.

Another major financial obstacle the district faces is its unfunded liability of $13 billion for retiree health-care benefits. Accountants told the school board’s Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee this week that the district’s long-term obligations increased by $1.8 billion, primarily due to an increase in the district’s portion of retiree health-care benefits.

To prepare for the 2017-18 budget, King has reportedly asked department heads to propose 30 percent cuts to each departmental budget.

The district also has to contend with a ruling by the California Department of Education over how it spends state funds. According to the state, LA Unified’s use of $450 million over the last two fiscal years on special education does not qualify it as also having been spent on three needy subgroups — foster youth, English learners and low-income students — despite the district insisting that it did. The new state funding formula requires that districts show how more money is being directed to those students.


The effect of Donald Trump’s election on thousands of undocumented students and their families in LA has included fear and uncertainty. Educators and district administrators have been preparing to act in opposition to immigration policies that may be put in place once Trump is sworn in as president on Jan. 20.

Concern has mounted over the possibility of massive deportations, according to Los Angeles school board President Steve Zimmer, who estimated that one-fourth of LA Unified’s 660,000 students are in the country illegally or have a family member without documentation.

LA Unified declared all Los Angeles schools as “safe zones” for undocumented students and their families, and board members approved two resolutions:Presidential Pardons for DREAMers in the Pursuit of the American Dream” and “Supporting Public Schools, Building Stable Learning Environments.” 

King has designated district staff to operate support centers across the district to provide emotional support and immigration-related resources and referrals.

Some parent centers have also been designated to provide such support, but it’s still unclear how exactly they will operate and if the district will have enough resources.

Some district employees and even teachers hired under the DACA program would also be in need of that support. The district has not revealed how many employees were hired under DACA, which Trump vowed to end during his presidential campaign.

Current DACA high school seniors in California will have to consider whether to apply to college out of state, where they might face deportation. Undocumented students have greater protections in California, plus more support from higher education systems as well as options for funding their education. Some may not to apply to college at all rather than risk making their personal information available to immigration authorities.

Last year, LA Unified board members directed district officials not to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement onto its campuses without direct authorization by the superintendent. But the question remains whether the district will be capable of executing the directive without facing the risk of losing federal funds. Trump threatened to defund “sanctuary” cities and schools. 

This week, the California Legislature hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to serve as outside counsel to advise on the state’s legal strategy against the incoming Trump’s administration.


At the beginning of 2016, roughly one in two high school seniors in LA Unified were on track to graduate. King declared it was “all hands on deck” in an internal memo and encouraged a districtwide push to get more students across the graduation stage. The memo revealed that only 54 percent of seniors were meeting their “A through G” course requirements, which became a graduation requirement for the first time last year.

The district invested $15 million into credit recovery programs, but questions remain about the quality of those online courses.

In August, at her first “State of the District” address, King announced the district had achieved a preliminary graduation rate of 75 percent — a record. The previous year’s graduation rate was 72 percent. The district has yet to reveal how many students graduated because of credit recovery programs.

The district lags behind the state graduation rate. In 2015, the state graduation rate reached a new high of 82 percent.

After months of discussion with the school board, King’s strategic plan, released in December, highlighted a single goal of 100 percent graduation. The plan lacked details on how or when the district would get there. The board declined to vote to endorse the plan.


LA Unified has lost nearly 100,000 students over the past six years and with each of those students goes state funding, which is based on attendance.

In order to try to stem the decline, the district is increasing programs that officials believe will make LA Unified schools more attractive to parents and students, including magnets and dual language immersion. 

Last year, the board approved $3 million to create 13 new magnet programs for the 2017-18 school year and specifically cited declining enrollment as a reason.

Nearly 90 dual language programs offer Arabic, Armenian, Mandarin, Korean, Spanish and French this year. 

The district is also working on a plan to allow more students to earn community college credits while they are still in high school.

One positive note in the enrollment picture is the district attracted nearly the same number of kindergarten students in 2015-16 as it had nine years earlier when it had 133,000 more students overall. The challenge that faces the district is keeping those students.

An analysis of 10 years of enrollment data showed that middle school emerged as a key battleground, showing a consistent enrollment drop in district schools as students entered sixth grade.

During the past 10 years, the district lost more than 41,581 students from fifth to sixth grade. Even after accounting for the growth of charter schools, nearly 15,000 students simply vanished from the public school system.  

The district is evaluating its middle school programs. Last year it formed a committee “Reimaging the Middle Grades” and it has started a pilot accreditation program for middle schools, similar to the accreditation process for some of its high schools.


In March, voters will decide three seats on the school board. Many education reformers see this election as crucial in its potential to shift the makeup of the board toward more support for charter schools.

Money from outside groups is sure to pour into the races. Two years ago, about $5.3 million was spent by independent expenditure committees. In 2013, more than $6 million was spent.

The primary is March 7 and the general election will be held May 16 if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes cast. The terms will be a year and a half longer than usual — 5.5 years — because voters decided to align city elections with state and federal elections starting in 2020.

Mónica García, the longest-serving board member, seeks her final term representing District 2, which includes Boyle Heights, Downtown LA and East LA. Two challengers are running against her: Carl Petersen, who unsuccessfully ran for the District 3 seat on the board in 2015, and Lisa Alva, an LA Unified teacher.

García has dominated early fundraising as of Sept. 30, city Ethics Commission documents show. She has raised $132,658 and spent about $50,000.

In District 4, Steve Zimmer, who serves as board president, seeks re-election to his third term representing the diverse district that stretches from west side of Los Angeles to East Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley. Zimmer, a former teacher and counselor, is expected to be endorsed by the teachers union, UTLA. Three candidates are challenging him.

Nick Melvoin announced his candidacy in February, more than a year before the election. He leads in early fundraising raising with $161,742 as of Sept. 30 and spending about $38,000, city Ethics Commission filings show. Melvoin is a teacher and attorney.

Another challenger is Allison Holdorff Polhill, a parent, attorney and former board member at Palisades Charter High School.

Gregory Martayan, a parent and police specialist, is also running in District 4. He has raised about $40,000, city Ethics Commission documents show.

The biggest field of candidates is in District 6, the northeast San Fernando Valley district. There is no incumbent. After serving one term, board member Mónica Ratliff decided to run for an open seat on the City Council.

Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez, a middle school science teacher, is running. As is Imelda Padilla, who most recently worked for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and its Raise the Wage campaign that successfully lobbied for a minimum wage increase. Padilla scored an early endorsement from UTLA in October.

Patty Lopez, who lost her re-election bid to the state Assembly in November, is also seeking the seat. Lopez’s assembly district includes much of the same area as the school board district.

Araz Parseghian has raised the most money as of Sept. 30 — $25,885. Parseghian is a parent, educator and businessman who also serves on the LA Valley College Foundation board and the Glendale Police Foundation board.

Gwendolyn R. Posey, an education advocate, and Jose Sandoval, an animal rights educator, are also running.

Staff writer Esmeralda Fabián Romero contributed to this article. 

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