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Fixing the L.A. public school system: A top priority for voters in November mayoral race, poll finds

Rebecca Katz | March 29, 2022

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Los Angeles Unified students attend a combined Advanced Engineering class at Olive Vista Middle School. (Frederic Brown/Getty Images)

Updated March 30 | This article is part of a collaboration between The 74 and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.   

More than half of Los Angeles voters believe the quality of education in the Los Angeles Unified School District is worse than it was before the pandemic, according to a new poll.

In a poll of likely voters commissioned by the nonprofit Great Public Schools Now, 73% of voters believe there is not at least one good public school in every neighborhood in Los Angeles. 

Overwhelmingly, voters also believe the next mayor is responsible for the quality of education provided by the district and should take an active role in determining school policy – even though the mayor does not have direct control of the school system. 

“There’s intersectionality between the problems in our public schools and all of the issues we are facing in this city,” said Ana Teresa Dahan, Great Public Schools Now’s senior director for policy, advocacy and communications. “We don’t want education to be seen as an isolated issue anymore.”

The poll also found 78% of voters, all likely to vote in the November 2022 election for local office, believe low income students are at a disadvantage because of a lack of access to technology; while 71% are concerned about a lack of equal access to quality education.

“Public schools here are not as good as they could be. Affluent people have abandoned neighborhood public schools. It’s a clear sign that civic leaders need to pay more attention to our [education] system,” said Pedro Noguera, Dean of USC Rossier’s School of Education. 

Enrollment in L.A. schools has been falling for years, with a decline that was accelerated during the pandemic. In September, 2021, enrollment fell by close to 6%, a much steeper decline than in recent years. Enrollment for the 2021-22 school year  stands at 430,322  students — a dramatic decline from the 2002-03 academic year when it was at a high of 737,739.

A recent analysis has found enrollment will dip below 400,000 for the first time in decades by the 2023-2024 school year, a stark contrast to the overcrowding problem the district faced in the early 2000s.

Declining traditional school enrollment is due to a host of factors – including the rise of charter schools, homeschooling, and the high cost of living in Los Angeles that has pushed out many families.  

“We can’t afford to have a city that essential workers can’t live in,” Noguera said. “The main thing we need to focus on now is getting kids back into the [public school] system.”

And, when enrollment in public schools drops, state funding for district schools drops, creating potential budget problems, Noguera said.

In a series of questions about how much accountability the next mayor should take in addressing issues in L.A. schools,  85% of respondents believe  the mayor is responsible for the quality of education; and 59% said the mayor should be “more active” on education policies.

Unlike other U.S. cities such as New York and Chicago, the Los Angeles school system is run by an elected school board and superintendent, rather than the mayor. In addition, some district schools are outside of the city but in the boundaries of the county.

“We know the role of the mayor is not to run our schools, but we see a lot of opportunity in the role the mayor can have,” said Dahan. “Schools are epicenters in our communities. They are usually the first place people go for help.”

Mayor Villaraigosa campaigned and won on the issue of education in 2005. He created the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a subset of the district L.A. comprising L.A.’s  lowest-performing schools and made significant headway in transforming some of the lowest quality schools into high quality choices.

“Villaraigosa showed us that with bold initiative as mayor you can really make changes,” Noguera said. “The next mayor needs to work closely and directly with the superintendent to rally community support around our public schools.”

The mayor is able to fundraise financial resources and create partnerships for public schools from the business and philanthropic communities, said Dahan.

“Education is an important issue that can shape the future of this city. Our next mayor should prioritize public education by leading city and school district collaboration,” said Great Public Schools Now executive director Ana Ponce.

The poll also found:

—  77% of voters are concerned about attracting and keeping good teachers.

—   76%  are concerned about the physical safety of students.

—   77% of voters are concerned about school’s preparing students for success.

—   54% are concerned about vaccine requirements in schools.

—   54% are concerned about the lack of school staff reflecting the student body. 

Rebecca Katz is a recent graduate of the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism Masters Program and a Los Angeles native. She received her bachelors in English literature and political science from USC. She is passionate about mental health and education reform. 

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