Thursday, May 20, 2010

Steve Lopez on Measure E: THIS SCHOOLS TAX IS A BARGAIN — For just $8.33 per household a month, voters could save hundreds of L.A. Unified teachers' jobs and help preserve arts education in elementary schools.

by Steve Lopez – Los Angeles Times columnist

May 19, 2010 | Good morning. May I have your attention?

Go ahead, enjoy your caramel macchiato while we chat, or is it an iced cinnamon dolce latte?

I'm not going to kid you, folks. As my colleagues on the editorial board pointed out last week, there are lots of good reasons to vote against Measure E on the June ballot, the temporary $100 annual parcel tax that would raise $92.5 million a year during each of the four years it would be in effect for Los Angeles Unified schools.

For starters, times are tough, and people don't want to dig into their pockets right now, especially since there's no citizen oversight written into the measure. On top of that, the teachers union has stubbornly resisted needed reforms, the district bureaucracy can be awful and the school board is no great shakes, either. So do we really want to send these people more money?

I say yes, and maybe it's because I have something no member of our editorial board has:

A child who attends an L.A. Unified school.

It changes your whole perspective. You know the entrenched problems and challenges in greater detail, but you also know more about the good work done by so many unheralded teachers and administrators. More important, you appreciate that as adults in ivory towers debate the merits of an $8.33 monthly fee per household to help schools devastated by budget cuts, hundreds of thousands of children are waiting on an answer.

At our daughter's school, my wife and others are involved in the constant scramble to raise money so we can save teachers served with layoff notices, or the librarian, or computer science, etc. And as things go in LAUSD, we're among the lucky ones, with our middle-class parental involvement, political clout and financial ability to help fill in some of the gaps.

For the vast majority of students, there's no such voice, and no such luxury.

"It's really about kids and families who many times have no other choice" but the neighborhood public school, said Elise Buik, president of United Way of Los Angeles, which has spent three years organizing parents and demanding more accountability and reform in local schools.

United Way's board, dominated by business leaders, has endorsed Measure E despite some reservations. Given funding cuts, Buik said, and the possibility that class sizes will balloon, the board sees Measure E not as a panacea but as a temporary necessity.

It might help, I told LAUSD Supt. Ray Cortines on Tuesday, if someone — him, perhaps? — stepped up and explained what that $100 a year would pay for. Cortines said he's keeping a low profile and hoping that if the turnout is low, only the most passionate voters will take to the polls and support the schools.

With all due respect, that's preposterous.

Measure E is a long shot as it is, with two-thirds approval required thanks to Proposition 13. So it has to have a passionate, high-profile champion who can celebrate student gains, flog lazy parents who don't take responsibility for their children and shame well-off citizens who carp about a $2-a-week tax that would give legions of impoverished youngsters a boost.

Maybe Cortines figures this thing is a loser, I don't know. There's no question the campaign for E is as strapped as the schools themselves, with only about $100,000 in support so far. Consultant Parke Skelton told me to expect mailers soon in which parents and teachers make the case for Measure E, but that'll be the extent of it.

So what's at stake, exactly?

Cortines told me that if Measure E passes, it will save the jobs of 350 teachers, along with 400 custodians and campus aides. Seventy-five nurses, counselors and psychologists will be spared. High school class sizes, already in the 40s, won't swell any further. And arts programs in the elementary grades could be preserved.

So where's A.J. Duffy of United Teachers Los Angeles, which dragged its feet before finally endorsing Measure E, and why isn't he leading the cheers?

Where's Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has tried to peddle himself as the education mayor?

The most passionate voices I've heard so far are those of the roving LAUSD art teachers who work at a different school each week. Dozens of them have gotten precautionary pink slips and they bristle at the suggestion that music, theater and other art classes are superfluous or expendable, especially in a district where it's the only access many students will ever have to professional arts instruction.

Elaine Burn-Machorro, who teaches theater at seven schools, called me Tuesday from Russell Elementary in the South Los Angeles area, where she was preparing second-graders for a performance of "Charlotte's Web."

"The arts are core curriculum," she said, whether students are exercising their brains to learn music or empathizing with characters as they develop the confidence to recite lines in front of an audience. "We do integration with math, science and social studies. We're not second-class citizens."

Burn-Machorro said she personally lobbied UTLA to support Measure E rather than play politics and point fingers at district leaders.

"My analogy is that you might not like the captain, but do you really want to sink the ship?"

She has a toddler who will one day attend an LAUSD school, Burn-Machorro said, so she's voting yes on E.

"Yes, times are tight, and my husband and I are homeowners. But it's $100 a year. We're talking $8.33 a month, or two lattes, to pay for theater, dance, music, visual arts, nurses, psychologists, counselors, librarians and custodians. Where are you going to find that for $8.33?"

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