A Pivotal School Board Election in L.A.: Where Jackie Goldberg & Heather Repenning Stand on Key Education Issues — and How They Could Reshape America’s Second-Largest District

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This article was produced in partnership with LA School Report

Residents of L.A. Unified’s Board District 5 in Los Angeles are headed to the polls Tuesday to select their next representative — one who will help shape a school board grappling with the district’s financial instability and a lack of consensus on how to improve student learning.

On the ballot are Jackie Goldberg, who amassed just shy of 50 percent of the vote in March’s primary election, and Heather Repenning, who secured about 13 percent of the vote and inched out Huntington Park Councilwoman Graciela Ortíz by a mere 31 ballots.

Goldberg, 74, of Echo Park, has deep political roots in the city and state. She was a teacher in Compton, an L.A. Unified school board member, an L.A. city councilwoman and a state assemblywoman. She is endorsed by United Teachers Los Angeles.

Repenning, 44, lives in Los Feliz — also in the northern, more affluent part of the board district — and has more than 18 years of experience in local government and was an aide to Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is campaigning for her. She would be the only parent on the board with a child in the L.A. Unified school system.

The two share similarities: They agree on the need for bolstered public education spending and back the upcoming Measure EE parcel tax. They’ve both been educators. Their moms are their greatest inspirations. But both Goldberg and Repenning are quick to distinguish themselves and their agendas. Repenning has painted herself as a centrist candidate who wants to deepen parent engagement efforts. Goldberg has tapped into her firebrand persona, demanding charter scrutiny and promising to work her connections at the state level to increase school funding.

Whoever wins the election will represent a predominantly Latino board district — about 90 percent of enrolled students are Latino — and fill the vacated seat of Ref Rodríguez, an education reformer who resigned last July after pleading guilty to political money laundering charges. The winner will impact how the current board, which swings between reform- and union-leaning agendas, addresses the district’s fiscal uncertainty, its low achievement scores and the future of charter schools.

Here are where both stand on hot-button topics:

Top Priorities

Goldberg’s campaign has largely fixated on taxing the state’s wealth and generating revenue.

In that vein, one of her first focuses as a school board member would be on equitable per-pupil spending. “One of the things we heard as I went around everywhere in this particular campaign was that some neighborhoods believe that even [in] L.A. Unified, they don’t get the same number of dollars per pupil as people who live in more affluent areas,” she told LA School Report. “So I want the district to do a study of the per-pupil expense given to each school to make sure that that’s either not true, or if it is true, that we fix it.”

Other priorities include:

● School visits: “I want to begin to visit the schools, starting with those in the southeast first because I’m the least familiar with them. That’s really the best way to know what’s going on in the district — to get up out of your chair and go visit schools.”

● Bilingual education: “I do believe that everybody needs to be bilingual, bicultural and biliterate,” she said Wednesday evening at a candidate forum.

● Charter accountability: “I want to begin fairly quickly asking the charter office to tell me what they do” when charter schools are “short by more than 50 percent for the number of students they said they would be serving. What do we do about that? Do we take money back from them?”

● Bolstering special education resources: “I want to take an in-depth look at how we are dealing with special education students. It’s near and dear to my own heart because of the difficulties my own son had getting what I thought was appropriate special needs services when he was in school [with ADHD] in L.A. Unified. … The complaints I’m getting [from parents] are that they don’t want the special education schools closed; that they’re being closed. They don’t want their kids to be mainstreamed, but they’re being mainstreamed.”

Repenning’s campaign, meanwhile, is rooted in a call for more parent engagement. She has an elementary-age daughter in the district.

“As a parent, we have so much work to do on parent engagement,” she told LA School Report. “Everything from making board meetings more accessible to giving parents more information on how schools are doing when they are trying to decide, choosing where to send your child to school. … Data and information is a really import piece of accountability. The more information that we’re able to share, the more it empowers parents.”

She hopes to increase parental involvement in the school board legislative process by bringing meetings to parents — something Goldberg also supports.

Other priorities include:

● High-quality afterschool tutoring at every school campus: “It’s very important for me as a working mother. Afterschool programs should be available for every child in the district,” she said at Wednesday’s forum.

● College access and eligibility: “I want to convene with [University of California and California State University system schools], community colleges, private universities to find out how can we do better for our LAUSD graduates,” she said Wednesday.

● Tackling climate change: Repenning is proposing a “Green New Deal” outfitted for L.A. Unified that calls for more energy efficiency, reducing food waste, replacing asphalt with greenspace and preparing students for jobs in science, technology and engineering fields.

● Getting people in the central office into schools: “I’d love to create a program where everyone at Beaudry or at the local districts spends one day a month or maybe more working at a school site,” she told LA School Report. “Because a school site is at the core of what we’re doing, that’s where our focus should be.”

Serving minority students and families

Board District 5, also known as BD5, has about 90 percent Latino enrollment, with two-thirds of students attending schools in heavily Latino and lower-income southeast cities such as Huntington Park and Maywood. BD5 is also home to some of the state’s lowest-performing schools — particularly in the southeast region of the district, where many students are children of immigrants.

Goldberg’s take 

Goldberg is white and doesn’t speak Spanish, but she told LA School Report that she’s not a “new resident” in the district either. She’s lived in L.A. Unified since the 1960s and taught in neighboring Compton for 16 years. “I taught in Compton, and that’s just south of [the southeast],” she said. “So it’s not a part of the county where I’m like, ‘Oh, where are they, I can’t find them.’ I feel comfortable there even though it is a new area for me to represent.”

The former board member is still active in the area too: She’s board vice president of L.A.C.E.R., an afterschool program that serves more than 4,000 students, many of them in BD5. “I’ve been involved in the educational issues of this district the entire time I’ve been in office and out of office,” she said.

When asked about how she would serve minority students, Goldberg has said she backs bilingual education expansion and more thoughtful, equitable supports for English language learners. (About a quarter of L.A. Unified’s students are classified as ELL.) “We have stupid district rules, [including] a district rule that 22 percent of English language learners should be moved into all-English classes every year,” she said. “We have schools that are entry-level schools for new immigrants, where about 75 percent of Spanish speakers speak no English at all. To have the same rules for all schools is ridiculous.”

Goldberg has not yet decided whether she supports allowing 16-year-olds to vote in school board elections but does support undocumented immigrants’ participation, which is already in place in San Francisco as of last November. To better tune in to minority communities’ needs, Goldberg added that she intends to “pick a very diverse staff, and they will help me be informed on those things I know about and on the things that I don’t know anything about.”

Goldberg is backed by the CHIRLA Action Fund, which supports immigrant rights, as well as prominent Latino political figures Hilda Solís, an L.A. County supervisor and former U.S. secretary of labor, and activist Dolores Huerta.

Repenning’s take 

Repenning is fluent in Spanish and taught in Latin America earlier in her career. Repenning, like Goldberg, believes in boosting bilingual programs — especially in early education — to support English learners.

“I would want our kids to come to our schools being bilingual starting from kindergarten,” she told LA School Report. “Bilingualism for me is very important.”

Working with immigrants is also a key focus. “I believe in my ability to support immigrant parents, first of all on immigration policies,” she said. “When I was at the city, I oversaw the Office of Immigrant Affairs. I’ve personally been involved — I understand DACA, TPS, I understand driver’s licenses, I understand how vulnerable parents are right now. I believe schools are very, very important places to communicate about a variety of things, not just about a child’s education.”

Her campaign set up an office in Huntington Park to foster more communication with families who live in the board district’s more diverse, low-income neighborhoods, campaign manager Derek Mazzeo told LA School Report.

Repenning thinks undocumented parents should be allowed to vote in school board elections, and — unlike Goldberg — was quick to commend the idea of also permitting 16-year-olds to vote when asked at Wednesday’s candidate forum. “At the end of the day, it’s important to me that true stakeholders in the district are able to have a real voice about who’s going to represent them at the school board,” she said.

Repenning is endorsed by the Latino Coalition of Los Angeles, an organization that advocates for policies and legislation that benefit the Latino community in Los Angeles. Ortíz, whom Repenning narrowly defeated, transitioned to support her campaign after the primary.

Student achievement

Only six of 98 elementary and middle schools in BD5 met state goals in both English and math, according to 2017 data analyzed by Parent Revolution — ranking it third in performance among L.A. Unified’s seven board districts. At the high school level, less than half of the class of 2019 systemwide is on track to graduate eligible to apply to UC and CSU schools.

Proposals to improve student achievement have been slim this election cycle — often taking a backseat to discourse on charters and the underfunding of schools.

Goldberg’s take

When asked about student achievement, Goldberg tied poor performance to poverty and subpar funding. “What happens is that the lower income the community, the more challenges there often are for kids who are in school,” she said, citing “extreme correlation between being very low income and not doing well in school because of those challenges that come from poverty. … So because we have high levels of poverty in Board District 5, we’ve got a lot of students who are not doing well.”

The answer, she said, is to increase funding. “That will change things dramatically, because then you lower class sizes, then you provide additional teaching assistance, then you provide additional assistant principals so that you have more folks that are looking out for and observing and taking care of the instructional program. So you just need more money first.”

She doesn’t want additional school spending tied to accountability standards, though. “We test every kid every year! My god, what do you want to do, test them twice a year?” she told LA School Report.

While Goldberg hasn’t laid out a step-by-step plan to improve academic outcomes, she does have ideas for what could help student learning across the board — much of it focused on reading. They include:

● “Get rid of hours of testing-based curriculum and have [teachers] actually teach kids to love reading, by giving them fun books to read, to enjoy and to talk about in class.”

● Based on a school’s budget, “double up the number of teachers and teaching assistants” for those students struggling the most with reading.

 ● In secondary schools, find “ways to get every academic teacher to teach reading along with their subject matter material.”

She also said during a February candidate forum that class sizes should be based on academics. “Students who are not reading at grade level should be in smaller classes than students that are reading at grade level,” she said. “One size does not fit all.”

Repenning’s take

Repenning is focused on expanding school programs for students, notably via “real, afterschool academic support at every single campus,” she told LAist. “It’s important to me that our schools be real community centers that are able to serve the multiple needs of children, including mental health and nutrition.”

She also wants to buckle down on improving college readiness — a top priority for many local high schoolers. Repenning told LA School Report: “I think the LAUSD leaders should be advocates for affordable and accessible higher education. It’s expensive and it’s daunting, and we need to make sure that our students have the support that they need so they can get into higher education. The basic things are increasing access to counselors, increasing the support for students to fill out their FAFSA forms. Even earlier than that, I think there’s a shift that needs to happen. We need to start signaling to students at a much earlier age that, ‘Hey, you’re going to college.’ Students need to be seen not just as future college graduates but as future leaders. One of the most important jobs for a school board member is setting those high expectations.”

Repenning said Wednesday she’s also a proponent for incentivizing effective teachers and principals to teach in the district’s lowest-performing schools, which are often filled with less-seasoned educators. Research has shown that teacher and school leadership quality correlate with student achievement.

Goldberg disagrees. “When you say to a group of teachers to come into another area, you’re implying that the teachers that are there are not very good,” she said at the forum.

LAUSD finances

L.A. Unified is continuing to project significant deficit spending and ballooning health care and pension costs that will eat up the district’s reserves within three years. The district spends $1.1 billion a year — about 15 percent of its budget — on health and welfare benefits.

The district is banking on new funding sources that aren’t guaranteed to stay afloat: projected revenue from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget and local initiatives like Measure EE, the $500 million-a-year parcel tax on the ballot next month. County overseers have threatened a takeover if L.A. Unified’s financial outlook doesn’t improve.

Goldberg’s take

Goldberg has said she views L.A. Unified’s current financial crisis as an exaggeration, stating that the district leans on “worst-case scenario” projections and has a $2 billion surplus — a claim made consistently by UTLA during January’s teacher strike.

“What districts do sometimes is they say, ‘We’re not ever going to spend so much money that if there’s a recession we would have to make cuts,’” Goldberg told LA School Report. “Sitting on money in the hopes that you won’t ever have to make cuts, in my opinion, is chicken. I’d much rather make cuts after having spent the money we had on the kids for years [until a recession hits] … Until then, they’re getting the benefit of those dollars being spent on their education.”

But Goldberg still intends to look at the budget to see where there can be cuts. She also backs Measure EE, calling it “a critical piece in changing the outcomes for children in our district” at Wednesday’s forum.

However, Goldberg rejected the idea of cutting pensions categorically at a February forum. “A pension is what you reward a teacher for spending their life working with your children,” she said. “This is a good thing, not a bad thing. What the problem is, is that we’re not taxing the wealth of the state.”

Repenning’s take

Repenning sees more nuance in the district’s financial woes. She acknowledges the “very real financial issues LAUSD is facing” and, like Goldberg, is calling for more funding. “First, we need more support for our schools from both Washington and Sacramento and for all of us to put aside political differences to ensure we pass Measure EE this June,” she told LA School Report.

At Wednesday’s forum, she added: “The district still does not currently have enough money to pay for the whole [teachers contract] package, so we actually need to pass Measure EE in order to be able to implement all three years of the strike agreement.”

Another solution for cost savings, she’s noted, is taking “a serious look at eliminating redundancy and waste in our bureaucracy and how we can push existing resources out of the central office and back into the community.”

Unlike Goldberg, Repenning said at the February forum that she would be open to exploring health care reforms. “I don’t see why only LAUSD should be providing a hundred percent of healthcare for seniors when we have the state and the federal government,” she said. “They should be playing a part of that as well.”

Charter schools

Arguably the most heated topic in L.A. Unified is charter schools and their role in public education. Charters are publicly funded schools, and all L.A. charters are run by nonprofit organizations. Most are not unionized. There are nearly 15,500 charter school students attending 32 independent charters within BD5, according to the California Charter Schools Association.

Goldberg’s take

The need to re-evaluate and rein in charters has been a central talking point of Goldberg’s campaign. Goldberg told LA School Report that she isn’t proposing to close existing charter schools, but she claims they’ve become a privatization scheme at the hands of billionaires that demands enhanced transparency and scrutiny — especially as the traditional public school system remains underfunded.

She further maintains that charters are unregulated, that they do not adequately serve special education students, and that the state system is “rigged” because when students leave for charters, traditional schools “lose 100 percent of the money” for educating that student, but not “100 percent of the fixed costs,” such as facility upkeep and staffing.

She supports a moratorium on new charters and strongly opposes a current law that allows these schools to co-locate on district campuses. Goldberg also favors changes to state law that would give L.A. Unified more power to turn down new charter applications. Currently, if the district rejects an application, the petitioner can appeal to the county Office of Education or the state, which can then green-light the application.

Her rhetoric, often seen as anti-charter, aligns closely with that of the teachers union. The Los Angeles Times, in an editorial endorsing Repenning, called Goldberg “by far the more ideological of the two, strongly allied with United Teachers Los Angeles.” It continued, “A board as riven as L.A. Unified’s over such issues as charter schools, teacher retirement benefits, school accountability, the looming budgetary crisis … the district doesn’t need more polarization or a stronger vote for one side or the other. It needs a move away from the division altogether.”

Repenning’s take

Repenning has avoided the rhetoric, assuming a more measured stance on charters. The same L.A. Times editorial called her a “nonconfrontational consensus builder.”

Repenning considers charter schools “part of our system” and wants to encourage traditional schools to learn from charters that are performing well. But she agrees with the need for more charter transparency and accountability. Repenning thinks the district should have more control over approving charters that open within its boundaries, and she generally sided with the school board vote in January asking Sacramento to study a charter moratorium.

“If you’re going to get public money, that’s a huge responsibility; you need to be doing much better than us or else I don’t see the point of renewing,” Repenning told LA School Report. “The whole point [of charters] was to create these laboratories that we learn from.” She added to LAist, “The politics are what they are. I am not running the same type of, I would say, anti-charter campaign as my opponent.”

The California Charter Schools Association has not endorsed Repenning — or any candidate during the entire BD5 election cycle. Her campaign did take some heat, however, after the L.A. Times reported that philanthropist Eli Broad had made a $100,000 donation to an SEIU Local 99 political action committee backing Repenning. Broad’s foundation has funded reform-minded board candidates and supports charter schools.

Repenning told LA School Report the donation was made through an independent campaign that she can’t “communicate or coordinate” with. And she’s stressed that she won’t take contributions from charter school operators.

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