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Deasy: Political contributors “invest in L.A. schools”

March 8, 2013

Like many interested observers around the country, I’ve been following the school board elections in Los Angeles. That’s partly out of general interest in a high profile drama involving the politics of education, the same way I’d pay some attention to a large district election almost anywhere in the country. It’s also a personal interest in my hometown, in a district where I was a student, and where I have friends and relatives attending the schools and teaching in them. Yet at the same time I think every Californian involved in education is affected to some extent by what happens in Los Angeles Unified School District. I’ve referred to that district as the Jupiter of our solar system. Looking at the situation less metaphorically, consider the significance of LAUSD in our state legislature. This one huge district covers a densely populated area represented by at least a dozen state legislators. Meanwhile, my state legislators in the San Francisco Bay Area might be representing dozens of school school districts.

So, yes, I pay attention to the gravitational force of LAUSD politics and policy. I also pay close attention to the words people choose, perhaps just as part of my nature or perhaps as a result of many years teaching English. Looking at a recent report on the LAUSD school board elections, I found some very interesting word choices in this article posted at L.A. School Report: “Defiant Mayor Promises Continued Involvement.”

First, let’s look at Mayor Villaraigosa’s comments on the huge contributions to “reform” candidates in this race:

Did the Mayor regret soliciting big checks from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch?

“Absolutely not,” he said. “The unions get their checks from their members dues. They’ve controlled these elections for a long time. And we’re not gonna let that happen any longer.”

What jumped out for me in this quotation was the use of pronouns: we, and they. Earlier in the article, the Mayor was complaining that he didn’t have Michael Bloomberg-like mayoral control over the school board (which, as far as I can tell from here on the left coast, has resulted in poor policy decisions handed down from a rubber-stamping schools Politburo). And why would the mayor expect good results in education reform when he casts himself with the “we” of Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg, outsider billionaires with a hostile position towards organized labor? Is there now, or has there ever been an example of a large organization that produced a sustained, positive change using divisive methods and the language of we and they?

The more telling bit of language in this article came from LAUSD Superintendent Dr. John Deasy:

Superintendent John Deasy also defended the outside donations. “I think it’s very affirmational that people want to invest in LA schools,” he said. “I mean, LA is America, only sooner. And we are coming to a hometown near you.”

There are a few definitions of the word “invest” and I’m sure Dr. Deasy wanted to convey this one: “devote (one’s time, effort, or energy) to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result.” The trouble is, the money wasn’t donated to schools or any program that would serve schools, which begs the question of what the “worthwhile result” would be. We’re talking about millions of dollars donated to candidates, and much of it came from outside interests with a long-term financial stake in the policies that will be determined by the victors. So despite Dr. Deasy’s presumed intent, it looks like the more relevant definition of “invest” in his quotation is the primary one: “expend money with the expectation of achieving a profit or material result by putting it into financial schemes, shares, or property, or by using it to develop a commercial venture.” For more details on how the money sloshes around and how “reform” friendly policies might make investments pay out, see Anthony Cody’s blog post, “Who Will the Los Angeles School Board Represent?”

Some readers might raise the same issue as Mayor Villaraigosa: what about the union contributions to their school board candidates? I understand that concern, and my first choice would be to limit the money in campaigns as much as possible; if there were a legal and fair way to restrict contributions all around, I’d be interested in pursuing it. Until that time, I’m much more cynical about the motives of outside individuals and organizations whose political and corporate interests and incomes may be substantially advanced by favorable policies. (That’s not to say I’d automatically take the same position as any union regarding any campaign). Union contributions are technically pooled contributions from thousands of educators, those directly engaged in the work and directly affected by the board. Union members who dislike the union-endorsed candidates have opportunities to affect that endorsement, or to withhold their dues from union political activity. And if the union-backed candidates and positions prevail, what outcomes might we foresee: policies that improve working and teaching conditions in schools? Improved pay and benefits for the middle class workers who actually do the educating? Next thing you know, teaching might be a more attractive profession, with more applicants to choose from and greater retention. I’m okay with that.



1. It’s worth pointing out that Villaraigosa’s comments about counteracting union influence come months after California voters rejected Proposition 32, which would have severely curtailed the ability of unions to collect and use dues for political purposes. Villaraigosa opposed Prop. 32, so his comments should probably not be read as an attack on the idea of union spending, but rather a call to challenge the union by similar means.

2. There is one runoff election following the March 5 election for LAUSD School Board. I have no opinion regarding the candidates in that runoff, nor should this post be construed as an endorsement of either candidate, now or in the future, regardless of the candidates’ donors or endoresements, and regardless of my opinions on the dynamics of campaign spending and endorsements in general or in the recent election.

3. Definitions of “invest” are quoted from the New Oxford American Dictionary.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Gerald Franz permalink
    March 8, 2013 12:10 pm

    People are extremely frustated with decades of climibing dropout rates and the decline of US schools in the face of much of the rest of the world

    • carolinesf permalink
      March 8, 2013 2:53 pm

      It’s actually not true that dropout rates are climbing, @Gerald Franz. Graduating from high school used to be a privilege for the elite. (To make this personal, my own grandmother, born in 1899 and raised around Appalachia and central Ohio, dropped out of school after 8th grade to go to work in a factory that made gloves. That was what her family expected and assumed, and was the norm for her social class.)

      Around World War II, about 50% of U.S. students graduated from high school. The rate of dropouts gradually dropped until the ’70s, and has leveled off since then. There are still significant existing cultures like the one my grandmother was raised in, where leaving school early to work is expected and assumed.

      It’s also, by the way, not valid, ever, to compare U.S. high school graduation rates to graduation rates worldwide. In many/most other developed nations, students in high school are on academic tracks or vocational tracks (possibly others — the Netherlands has an arts track). Students on the vocational track legitimately graduate from the equivalent of our high school after the equivalent of our 10th grade, at or about age 16.

      So: In nations with those systems — and I don’t have a complete survey — a student who leaves school at or about age 16 after the equivalent of our 10th grade is a graduate. In the U.S., any student who leaves school at or about age 16 after the equivalent of our 10th grade is a dropout. So as you can see, comparisons are invalid and not legitimate. (And I’ll go further and point out that anyone who does make those comparisons — now that you know they’re unsound and invalid — is misinforming you, and nothing else that source tells you should be accepted at face value either.)

      • March 8, 2013 9:17 pm

        I don’t think other countries educate every child either. For example, lots of folks like to compare the U.S. to China (when they only really use stats from Shanghai, a very wealthy area.) if you’re physically disabled, or SPED….you’re screwed in the rest of the country.

        Here in America, school Districts pay to educate all children, even if it means sending them to an expensive $25,000 per year special school for children with severe problems.

    • southside teacher permalink
      March 9, 2013 8:04 am

      Check the figures at the National Center for Education Statistics, instead of relying on the outrageious claims of those who have an obvious agenda- destroying public education.

  2. George Buzzetti permalink
    March 8, 2013 1:10 pm

    What is it with this author? First they lay out the ground very well and then in the notes he says “No endorsement in any runoff.” What kind of a foolish response is that? He lays out how corrupt the situation really is and then no response to who will get on the board and effect the 4-3 bad vote at the district now with Zimmer being one of the bad 4 votes until this election. That means the whole thing is dependent on the runoff race and they do not have an opinion. This is just plain bought and sold or stupid I do not know which. Usually it is bought and sold from my 20 years of watching and documenting corruption in public schools and charter schools nationwide. Great article and then that note. The devil is always in the details such as never run a spreadsheet on a district or individual school without doing it for 10 years as there are always surprises.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 15, 2013 3:50 pm

      George, thanks for the comment. First of all, my apologies for your comment getting stuck in the queue for so long. I usually get emails advising me of comments in moderation, and for some reason, yours and a few others didn’t get through for a while. Now, regarding the substance of your comment. This blog is part of the work of Accomplished California Teachers, which is a project within the organizational umbrella of the National Board Resource Center at Stanford University. Due to that connection with a non-profit, non-partisan organization, I cannot endorse any candidates or ballot measures. I can offer commentary on the general political process, and leave it to the reader to see if there are implications of those opinions. Some people push that boundary quite a bit and say things that clearly favor a certain position or candidate. In this case, the main focus of my blog post was an election that had already happened, and some of the financial and rhetorical activity around that election that I think deserves some scrutiny. However, I don’t discuss the candidates in the runoff, and honestly don’t know enough about them to have an opinion. I also wouldn’t go so far as to say that my personal vote would be based entirely on who’s receiving money from whom or who has what endorsements. While those things matter, they don’t automatically indicate the qualities of the opposing candidate(s).

  3. Lisa Alva permalink
    March 12, 2013 10:53 am

    The mayor’s and the superintendent’s choice of words struck me as interesting as well, David. The mayor’s anti-union comments are particularly disturbing. He doesn’t talk that way when we are in the room, naturally. Entre nous, I will be resigning from the Partnership’s Board of Directors later this month, which will leave one teacher on that board, which just added three new members from local LA businesses & foundations.

    The UTLA House of Reps is holding a special session this week to reconsider Board endorsements in District Six specifically because of the funding question. The mood in the house was decidedly anti-big funders last week. More on that story as it develops. We could definitely use a bigger turnout than we had last Tuesday.

  4. David B. Cohen permalink*
    March 15, 2013 5:16 pm

    Noted in a comment above, but want to put it out here to everyone. I apologize for the delay in clearing comments that were in the queue for several days. I aim to keep InterACT a more InterACTive blog and will keep a closer eye on the moderation.


  1. How to “Invest” in Los Angeles Schools: Buy the School Board | Diane Ravitch's blog

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