Campaigning in a Different World

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Left, Tanya Ortiz Franklin, a lawyer who works for Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. Right, Patricia Castanellos, former deputy director for Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

Top District 7 vote-getters in school board race look to distinguish themselves in new political environment

The District 7 top vote-getters were decided in April 2020, but the campaign focus was simply on who is going to replace the steady hand of Richard Vladovic. Which faction is going to get the upper hand on the board, pro or anti charter school advocates?

The top vote-getters were former Los Angeles Harbor commissioner, Patricia Castellanos, who served as deputy director for Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and was the policy director and community organizer with Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education. And the other was Tanya Ortiz Franklin, a UCLA-trained lawyer who works for Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

In the wake of the pandemic and the George Floyd demonstrations, Los Angeles Unified has  cut the budget of its school police and defied the Donald Trump administration’s order to open schools in the fall. School funding is still an issue, but who benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program and who didn’t is also an issue.

The following is a question and answer interview Random Lengths News sent out to the candidates this past July. We received their responses in August.

RLn: If you were to grade the Los Angeles Unified School District on its handling of the challenges presented by the pandemic and the movement to defund the police, what grade would you give and why?

Patricia Castellanos: The district’s main goal in managing through the pandemic and movement for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder should be protecting the health and safety of our students, their families and the school community. This must be balanced with the economic uncertainty and pain that the pandemic has caused for so many, as well as the learning needs of our students.

The district was right to rely on science and data to close our campuses in March, and to require 100% distance learning when our new school year starts. I believe that decision saved lives. We see other parts of the nation rushing to reopen schools and usher parents back to workplaces — despite alarming surges in hospitalization and fatality rates.

With the new year approaching, the district must improve dramatically to meet the needs of our families. First, the district should do more to communicate with parents and students. As a parent of a second-grader in LAUSD, I know there will be tough decisions to be made, but parents need as much time as possible to prepare and plan. The decision to shift to 100% distance learning was announced only weeks ago. Also, I believe that the district should do more to connect with black and Latino families, whose children make up over 80% of the student population. I have been engaged with hundreds of parents through virtual meetings and surveys, many of whom have called for more communication from the district. Lastly, the district must address the low participation rates in distance learning among vulnerable students.

Tanya Ortiz-Franklin:  If our objective as a school district is, as I believe it is, to prepare all students to graduate ready for college, career and life, then grading should be based on expectations of taking efficient action in service of reaching this objective. Where an A demonstrates exceeding expectations, a C meets expectations for eligibility for higher education and during school closure, apparently everyone receives no lower than a D (which is still sufficient for graduation).

In responding to the pandemic and defunding school police the district earns a C and a D, respectively. In mid-March, the district took swift action based on clear values of what would be most needed for our students to continue learning — daily food distribution for all and getting devices and internet connectivity to as many students as possible. As the weeks went on and students experiencing the heaviest burdens of the pandemic still lacked devices or internet access and the district’s priorities shifted away from them to starting a summer school program they could not access, their grade suffered as well.

On the issue of school police in this historic moment to demonstrate that black lives matter, the grade is based on taking efficient action for black students’ preparation for college, career and life. Black youth have been leading the call to decriminalize students for years and the district waited until the last minute to take action for next school year with no cohesive approach to Los Angeles School Police. The superintendent created his task force without youth, teacher or parent leaders — a task force that has yet to meet though they were supposed to report back by the end of summer — and the board rehashed the same arguments and allegiances during two excruciatingly long board meetings.

RLn: Do you believe the LAUSD has been centering students’ academic and social-emotional needs with its decision not to reopen schools in the fall and defunding the LAUSD police? Detail your reasons why you believe it has or has not.

PC: Our  students learn when they feel safe. In managing LAUSD’s current challenges, the district is right to prioritize the health and safety of our students, their families and our school community. The decision to not reopen schools in favor of distance learning was based on overwhelming scientific data. There is no doubt that for the great majority of students the best place for them to learn and grow — socially, emotionally, academically — is in school alongside their teachers and classmates. Much more work must be done about our students’ learning needs, including dramatically improving distance learning for ALL students, improving communications with all parents and improving support for students with special needs. But the decision to not reopen schools saved lives.

Also, the recent decision to redirect funds from the LAUSD police to services that support black students was the right decision. It provides critical support for our high-needs schools in the midst of a national call for racial justice and healing. 

TOF: No. I believe the district is centering public health in the decision to not reopen schools this fall, as they should, and is centering politics in the issue of defunding police. If the district centered students’ academic and social-emotional needs in these decisions, there would be a more comprehensive plan with a timeline for decisions to be made with the meaningful engagement of students, parents, educators and school staff.

I have spent the last few months centering students’ academic and social-emotional needs alongside fellow educators as we prepare for school reopening at 19 LAUSD schools. We started by setting goals for the year — not in state assessments and academic growth as we traditionally do, but in ensuring that all students have devices and internet connectivity, that relationships are the foundation of learning and that we have the tools we need to support meaningful student engagement in diverse ways. This led us to develop an array of distance learning and family engagement resources to support an optimistic launch to the 2019-20 school year, even as we await many crucial decisions from the district.

RLn: Do you believe that charter schools in Los Angeles County receiving $78 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans is as big a problem as some are making it out to be?

PC: We must do everything we can to protect our schools from the immense economic hardship brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, as public entities, our schools have benefited from a continued funding stream from the state, plus access to federal CARES Act funding. Charter schools continue to be funded by these public sources as well.  However, as the pandemic continues and revenues for the state decline, public education, which is already underfunded, is at risk for further cuts and underfunding. If the federal government is going to provide additional funding to charter schools, outside California’s school funding mechanism, then neighborhood public schools should be eligible for those additional funds as well.

TOF: Nonprofit organizations around the country breathed a sigh of relief when they could access PPP loans to maintain job security and health care for employees and their families, just as government entities did when the CARES Act came through. It’s important that federal dollars provide a safety net for our most vulnerable populations as well as those serving them.

RLn: With three months remaining until the general election in November, what challenges, if any, beyond the ones mentioned in this questionnaire, do you see emerging in the next couple of years and what will it take to address those challenges?

PC: California continues to rank near 43rd in the nation in per-student spending, reflecting a public school system that has experienced decades of under-funding. The COVID pandemic exacerbates this crisis. Our communities are struggling under the weight of COVID, the recession, job losses and housing and food insecurity. With the state’s economic uncertainty and the lack of leadership at the national level, parents are concerned about drastic budget cuts when our students need resources more than ever. The district, local, state and federal administration must step up and raise revenue for our public schools so that our students can learn and teachers can teach.

TOF: The looming economic recession, especially because LA Unified has teetered on the fiscal cliff for years, is a huge concern that must be met with courage and a deep understanding of how cuts impact the classroom. Even with the hope of Proposition 15 and the school bond measure in November, LAUSD must still move towards equitable funding. That is, the fight for enough cannot mask the fight for fairness.

Additionally, meaningful community engagement in decision-making continues to be an opportunity for improvement in our district and is even clearer during this time of distance learning. Now that some students are thriving working at their own pace (almost practicing for college) and others are deeply struggling with the lack of resources and human connection, our education system has the insights to make really different decisions about teaching and learning in partnership with families, so that every student has a tailored experience for the best educational outcomes possible.

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