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Deasy: Political Contributors “Invest in L.A. Schools"

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 effected 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.

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David B. Cohen

David B. Cohen is the Associate Director of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). His main responsibilities are in communications and membership, and he works t...