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Three Reasons You Should Care Who Wins the School Board Races

LA School Report | February 13, 2013

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This is a guest post
by Jason Mandell, Director of Public Affairs at United Way of Greater Los Angeles

Recently I was talking with someone about the city’s March 5th election, which includes three hotly contested school board races, and this was her response: “I don’t have children in public schools, so I don’t really care about the school board.”

This kind of worried me. Not just because I think it matters who sits on the school board, but because I like to think people care about issues beyond those that directly affect them – or at least, they should be embarrassed if they don’t. Aren’t we supposed to worry about the whole community? Maybe that’s naïve.

Regardless, here are my top three reasons that everyone in Los Angeles should care about the school board races, at least enough to pick a candidate and cast a ballot:

#1. The school board has way more power than you think. Why else would New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg write a $1 million check to help elect three LAUSD board candidates? In cities like New York and Chicago, mayors control the education system. Not so in L.A. That means the seven members of the L.A. school board, whose operating budget is $7.3 billion, decide everything from how funds are spent to which new schools are opened.

Need more proof of the school board’s power? When the city’s teachers union – United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) – endorsed Eric Garcetti for mayor, in the same breath they said they would not spend a single dollar on his campaign. Why? They plan to devote every cent to electing their picks for school board. When it comes to education, the LAUSD board has more impact than the mayor.

P.S. Even though you might hear a lot about Superintendent John Deasy, whose intellectual might, reformer’s zeal and Mayor Quimby-esque accent have earned him plenty of press, just remember that he works for the school board. They’re his boss.

#2. A city is only as strong as its schools. We can’t sit back and watch 49% of LAUSD students drop out of high school or fail to graduate every year – and still expect our city to thrive. A vibrant city needs a strong workforce. Where will those workers come from, if the next generation can’t make it through high school? Local businesses rely on consumers with extra cash to spend, but the average high school dropout has little, if any, disposable income. The same goes for the thousands of kids who are shuttled through our broken system without mastering the skills needed to earn a middle-class living. If you care about L.A.’s competitiveness and economic wellbeing, you should care who is looking after its schools. There’s a reason your taxes pay the school board members’ salaries, even if your kids go to private school.

#3. Education is a civil rights issue and the school board makes the rules. If you knew that kids with brown skin weren’t given the same basic rights as other kids, would you care? Well, that’s exactly what’s happening at schools across Los Angeles. The school board, though, has the chance to actually remedy many of those inequities. They can make sure that teachers in all schools get job performance reviews and that students from every neighborhood are given access to the classes they need for college admission. In short, the seven school board members have an incredible opportunity to bridge the civil rights gap in our schools and make sure Latino and African-American students get the education they deserve. But hey, maybe this isn’t your problem. Maybe it’s someone else’s.

Look, no one’s asking you to drop what you’re doing and start posting lawn signs. Just spend a few minutes online, look up which board district you live in (click here to find out), find out who’s running for school board in your area and what they’re all about, make a choice, and ink the little box next to his or her name on March 5th. Don’t do it for the kids – do it for your city. Or better yet, do it for yourself.

Jason Mandell is Director of Public Affairs at United Way of Greater Los Angeles, whose sold-out Education Summit on February 27th will convene “Education Mayors” Cory Booker, Rahm Emanuel and Antonio Villaraigosa, along with 1,200 community and business leaders. Follow Jason on Twitter: @mandelljason

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