Hundreds of people turned out to the Mar Vista Community Council’s Education Summit on Thursday evening at the Mar Vista Recreation Center.
Twenty-one West L.A. schools were represented at the event, setting up booths and lining the walls with tables, T-shirts and banners to provide information on their educational establishments to current and prospective parents. The main focus of the evening, however, was the much-anticipated panel discussion on education reform.
Hosted by Kate Anderson and Babak Nahid, co-chairs of the MVCC Education Committee, the panelists included District 3 LAUSD Board of Education member Steve Zimmer; Mar Vista Mom blogger and parent activist Sarah Auerswald; District 3 Interim Local Superintendent Gay Havard; Green Dot Public Schools CEO Marco Petruzzi; Westminster Elementary School teacher and UTLA and NewTLA member James Encinas; and Sophie Fanelli, director of research and policy at UCLA's Institution for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA).
Among the high profile attendees were United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy; Crenshaw High School teacher Marcy Winograd, who is running to replace Jane Harman in the 36th Congressional District race; and District 11 Councilman Bill Rosendahl.
Mar Vista Community Council Chair Albert Olson spoke before the panel, noting, “We brought this panel here tonight in part to talk about how we as a community can keep our Mar Vista schools strong in the face of the challenges ahead.”
The panelists discussed several of those challenges. Havard spoke about the need for education reform and coming together to create solutions. Citing the W.B. Yeats quotation adopted by Walgrove Elementary School that says, "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire," she said that everyone should find ways to light that fire.
Auerswald spoke as a mother with one child in a local charter school and another child in a local non-charter school, and urged parents to become more involved. Petruzzi vehemently defended his schools in the ongoing debate over locating charter schools on the same campus as other schools. He also withstood some heckling from a disgruntled audience member. However, ultimately, all the panelists returned to the budget crisis.
As Rosendahl noted in his brief, yet impassioned plea to the assembled crowd: “I’m very upset that California went from No.1 or No. 2 in funding down to No. 46. How can we do that? The most important thing we can do is lay the foundation for the rest of our children’s lives and that’s education. I don’t care if you’re a tea party or a coffee party [member]. Education of our kids is key. Make sure you stay focused.”
Staying focused, Fanelli said, was about “talking about the elephant in the room, and that’s the budget.” She urged everyone to rethink the way schools are funded. She also laid out some sobering statistics from report on high schools:
- 60 percent of high schools have cut or eliminated summer school
- 49 percent have cut instructional days
- 63 percent have cut instructional materials
- 46 percent of schools have cut back on security guards and other staff
- 67 percent of schools have reported a decline in cleanliness in the classrooms
Zimmer said he agreed that conversations about reform are essential.
“The crisis is very real, you don’t need me to tell you that,” he said. “But reform can’t happen unless there’s a baseline of funding. Our children’s dreams, hopes and futures are being held hostage by ideologues who are spinning words like ‘investment’ and ‘spending.’ ”
Zimmer also said he recognized that schools are families, not “collections of positions.” To huge applause, he vowed, “I personally will not rest until the achievement gap becomes the civil rights issue in this community.”
Fanelli came back with more sobering statistics, noting that LAUSD schools have already received $18 billion in cuts. “And we’re about to cut another $5 billion that we can’t afford to do. The first thing we've got to do is get measures on a ballot," she said.
“It’s great to get engaged on the personal level at schools,” Fanelli added, “but we have to go beyond the bake sale. Go to the schools and make your voices heard. Look at the budget, talk to the teachers, sign petitions. See what you can do at the state and district level. What are you willing to sacrifice?”
Auerswald echoed Fanelli’s sentiment saying bluntly, “Collectively, we don’t want to pay for this enough… but it’s coming out of your pocket one way or another, whether you buy cupcakes [at a school bake sale] or if [the money] comes out of your taxes.”
However, Duffy leapt up from the front row of the audience to pour cold water on the ballot measure solution, stating, “If this goes on a ballot it’s not going to pass. The polls show that. The new strategy is to target Republican senators and Assembly people to get it passed in the Legislature.”
He then went on to tell everyone in order to make that happen they should call 213-487-5560 and ask for UTLA political organizer Juan Parrino. “Tell him I said to call!”
Petruzzi said he believed that if everyone committed to maximum attendance at school—both students and teachers—“that alone would save every teacher’s [job]. Bring your kids to school, and teachers, show up,” he said.
Encinas raised another thorny issue asking why there can’t be pension reforms by the school unions. “The taxpayers cannot be the major contributors,” he argued.
Zimmer agreed that pension reform should be on the table and that he was a believer in collective bargaining, but that there was “a bit of demonizing that’s going on. I know some folks won’t agree,” he said. “But I never met a teacher union member who caused us to be involved in a war…and I’ve met very few teacher members who were involved in the deregulation of Wall Street.”
Duffy added that there is “so much misinformation and misperception about teacher pensions.” He pointed out that no teacher goes into the profession for the money or the glory. “The trade is we make a lesser salary with a defined benefit package. Don’t demonize your teachers,” he urged. “Your teachers are not at fault. What’s as fault is the faulty funding system. We simply don’t have a steady, stable, funding stream for public education and without it we can’t make long range plans.”
During comment and question time from the audience, the topics were broad. Questioners asked about whether before- and after-school programming in the district would be cut and about the state of the social justice charter at Mark Twain Middle School. However, even among the parents, the questions once again came back to the budget.
One parent noted that San Diego Unified has formed a no budget cuts caucus and has threatened to take action if further cuts come down. She asked whether the LAUSD has any similar plans. According to Zimmer, the San Diego caucus has threatened to not start classes until Oct. 10 if that district receives further cuts.
“If these cuts went through we’d be committing a crime against our kids,” Zimmer said. “We need to be talking about actually just saying no with the pathetic level of funding that we have.”
Zimmer said he believed that with the current funding in the district, LAUSD schools could run until April 17, 2012. “And then we should just not do it anymore,” he said. “Nobody in the state wants to take over LAUSD. If all these budget cuts go through then 80 to 110 schools will close down, many of them small schools. If we release this list, the response will be intense,” he promised.
Petruzzi summed up everyone’s sentiments, noting that it was something that both the panelists and attendees could agree on. “Everyone is focused on the budget issue,” he said. “We’re all publicly funded and we’re all in deep trouble.”