On the Heels of the L.A. Teacher Strike, a Firebrand and Charter Critic Looks to Return to the School Board After Nearly 30 Years

(Jackie Goldberg/Flickr)

For public education firebrand Jackie Goldberg, next Tuesday’s special election to fill the vacant seat in L.A. Unified’s Board District 5 is a chance to block a pro-charter majority on the school board — and not just through 2020.

Goldberg, who served on the school board from 1983 to 1991, told LA School Report that if elected, she could stay past December 2020 when the term expires, marking a departure from statements made last year. One of her main drivers in re-entering the field, she says, is keeping the seat out of the hands of charter school proponents. The board currently swings between reform- and union-leaning agendas after Ref Rodríguez, who had been backed by charter school advocates, resigned in July after pleading guilty to political money laundering charges.

“We do not need to have four members of the seven-member board be beholden to the charter schools,” she said. “Their concern is for 20 percent of the schools and 20 percent of the kids. And it’s important to have them at least in the minority.”

The 74-year-old Goldberg — called “the candidate to beat” — distinguishes herself from the other nine candidates with her deep roots in Los Angeles education and politics, giving her by far the most name recognition. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago, respectively. Before her eight-year tenure on the school board, she taught in the once infamously embattled city of Compton for 16 years. Goldberg also served on the L.A. City Council from 1993 to 2000, then in the state Assembly from late 2000 to 2006. She’s married to longtime partner Sharon Stricker and has one adopted son.

Goldberg was endorsed early on by United Teachers Los Angeles, the most powerful backer so far in the race. In January, she was on the picket lines alongside striking teachers. On Friday, she was with Los Angeles teachers again as they stood in solidarity with the Oakland strike, receiving a “glowing” endorsement from the union’s president.

Goldberg has raised about $166,000, according to city ethics commission data, which puts her third in terms of campaign cash. A UTLA-affiliated independent expenditure committee has spent more than $350,000 to support her candidacy as of Monday.

The California Charter Schools Association is not endorsing a candidate in the primary, though it could if no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote on March 5 and the race goes to a runoff.

Goldberg comes from the northern part of the snaking, backward-C-shaped board district that’s known as BD5. She is a longtime resident of Silver Lake, in the part of the district just north of downtown, which is whiter and more affluent — and also where voter turnout is higher. Latinos make up about 74 percent of enrollment in the northern section of BD5, but in the southern, more impoverished part, nearly all students are Latino. Overall, Latino enrollment in the board district is about 90 percent.

Seven of the 10 candidates are Latino. Goldberg is white and doesn’t speak Spanish.

If Goldberg wins, either outright next week or in a May 14 runoff, she would help oversee a district in the throes of an identity crisis, underscored by impending fiscal uncertainty and rapidly declining enrollment. Although there are universal goals to secure more funding for schools and support students, how to do so has pitted protectors of traditional public schools against charter backers and education reformers who want the district to finally do something to fix student achievement. About 42 percent of students — and only 3.6 percent of English language learners — met or exceeded reading expectations on the annual state exams in 2018. And fewer than 4 in 10 students are prepared for college or careers, according to the state’s school dashboard.

In an hour-long interview, Goldberg said her top priorities would be taxing the wealthy and pushing for more accountability and transparency for charters. She also said giving students “an active representative who will look out for their interests, and make sure they are treated fairly by the district” was key, but spoke little about academics or improving student achievement in the overwhelmingly Latino district unless prompted.

‘This is about money’

Goldberg’s revenue-generating ideas largely extend beyond the purview of the school board. And she doesn’t want additional school spending tied to accountability standards.

Her “first, most important” agenda item is to advocate for “taxing the wealth” of the state’s “150 billionaires” and multimillionaires. One way to do that is through a Proposition 13 tax referendum on the 2020 ballot, which would increase property taxes statewide on commercial and industrial properties. That could generate $1.4 billion for L.A. County schools.

Goldberg also sees a need for a “realignment of who puts in what into the pension fund.” There has been increased financial burden on teachers and school districts in recent years to cover the state’s unfunded pension liabilities. Pensions, along with health care costs, are expected to consume half of L.A. Unified’s budget by 2031-32. Gov. Gavin Newsom allotted about $3 billion in one-time pension relief to the teachers’ retirement system in his proposed budget in January.

While Goldberg can’t guarantee those revenues as a board member, former District 5 board member David Tokofsky pointed out that Goldberg’s prior assemblywoman status could open doors to conversations with state legislators.

“Certainly she has the ability to pick up the phone much easier than these other nine candidates and just call” state and even federal officials, he said. State Superintendent Tony Thurmond and at least six state legislators are among her endorsers. “It’s just a knowledge base. She’s sort of got a Ph.D. in school board.”

District and union leadership agree on the need for more money from the state. California has a dismally low national ranking — varying between 37th and 43rd — in per-pupil spending. But a question looms as to whether the state economy is at a tilting point toward a possible recession after years of soaring tax revenue growth. A recent Legislative Analyst’s Office report said lawmakers “should prepare for lower revenue projections later this spring” after collected tax revenues in January fell $2 billion short of expectations.

Goldberg isn’t fazed. “The economy in California is healthy for a while longer,” she said. “And we have a bigger economy than New York,” which allocates nearly twice as much in per-pupil spending. “There’s really no reason why we are not able to do what we need to do for public schools.”

The former school board member knows what it’s like to make draconian funding cuts when hefty promises are made and state funding doesn’t materialize. When Goldberg served as board president, members cut millions from the 1991-92 budget amid a crippling state recession and after a 1989 teacher contract deal that granted educators a 24 percent raise over three years. Goldberg had approved that deal. She’s recounted how she started losing her hair during that time to stress and chose to not run for re-election following the cuts.

“I couldn’t dismantle a district I loved so much,” she recalled.

But Goldberg is adamant that today is nothing like the early ’90s. And 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.

District officials dispute that claim of $2 billion in available cash. And independent studies of L.A. Unified have pointed to significant deficit spending and ballooning health care and pension costs that will eat reserves. County overseers could even take control of the district’s finances if a fiscal stabilization plan due in mid-March doesn’t show growth in projected 2020-21 reserve levels.

“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 said. “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.”

To generate money locally, Goldberg said she’d support a parcel tax, which is a property tax based on a property’s characteristics, such as its acreage or square footage, rather than its assessed value. About 68 percent of residents voiced support for a $330 per parcel tax last year. The school board failed to pass such a tax last July, but board members at a meeting Tuesday expressed considerable interest in pursuing a parcel tax again in the near future.

Goldberg also wants to flex her budgeting muscles — she “did that for eight years on the board” — to see where cuts can be made. Although she doesn’t have explicit cuts in mind yet, she says she’s opposed to slashing administrative positions as a solution.

“There are people who say we should just get rid of downtown and just get rid of district offices,” she said. L.A. Unified has already begun to do so. “I don’t believe in that. … We have a huge number of brand-new principals and assistant principals, and I don’t care what anyone says, they’re not getting enough support in schools because we’ve cut a lot of people.”

Yolie Flores, who represented District 5 from 2007 to 2011, is wary of Goldberg’s and other candidates’ fixation on money.

“We absolutely need to resource our schools better … so yes, money is needed. But it’s not just about more money,” Flores said. “During my time on the board, we had low-performing schools that had a ridiculous amount of money and they were still underperforming. And then we also saw salary increases over the years and yet student outcomes are still dismal, especially for low-income kids and kids of color. So I think the question is how we use the money we have. Do we have the right strategies and priorities?”

When asked if school accountability measures — ways to gauge whether student achievement is improving — should go hand in hand with any new investments by the state or local taxpayers, Goldberg stridently denounced the idea.

“We test every kid every year! My god, what do you want to do, test them twice a year?” she asked. She added that blaming low-performing schools, teachers, principals, and even the superintendent is misplaced. Goldberg reiterated, “This is about money. This is about money, and the people who have it all but don’t want to spend it on the children.”

She continued: “You want to make this accountable? The first 90 percent of the money that is generated [from taxes] must go to reducing class sizes.” Research shows smaller class sizes improve grades for younger learners. “That’s how you do it.”

Revising charters

Goldberg’s position on charters closely aligns with that of UTLA. She told LA School Report that she isn’t proposing to close charter schools but 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 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 strongly opposes a current law that allows charter schools to co-locate on district campuses. That law “needs to be banned or severely reduced,” she said. Goldberg also supported a recently approved board resolution — which was put before the board as part of an agreement to end the teacher strike — that asks the state to implement a moratorium on new charters in L.A. Unified while studying their financial effects on traditional school districts.

Traditional and charter schools “could coincide happily,” Goldberg said. But not under the current system.

“It is not the parent making the decision to put a kid in a charter school that’s the problem,” she told KPFK last month. “That parent is like every other parent, deciding what might be the best place for their kid. But the system is rigged.”

California charters, though they are privately run, are public schools, not-for-profit and often not unionized. L.A.’s charters tend to have smaller class sizes, and students often perform better, according to a CREDO study. Independent charters serve about 10.6 percent of the district’s special education students — comparable to traditional schools’ 12.3 percent. And while charters can have more discretion around decisions involving curriculum, the length of the school day and year, and hiring and firing, they do have oversight measures, such as submitting budgets to the county office of education, the California Charter Schools Association told LA School Report last month. Goldberg has said that they don’t.

There are 32 independent charters in Board District 5. (BD5 has no affiliated charters, which are district-run schools that have some autonomies.) That’s about 18 percent of BD5’s 180 public schools. Across the entire district, there are 225 independent charter schools, teaching about 18 percent of the district’s students.

Goldberg told LA School Report last week that she “want[s] the charter people to go to Sacramento with me to revise charter legislation.”

“If they are doing so well … there’s no reason for them not accepting some major changes,” she said.

The state is now assembling a panel of experts to explore how charter growth affects districts’ finances following the school board’s vote. Local advocacy groups Kids Coalition, Speak UP, and Parent Revolution tried unsuccessfully in January to expand the mantra of increased charter accountability to all district schools.

While Goldberg seems willing to reach across the aisle, some education observers consider her anti-charter based on the divisive way she’s referred to those schools publicly. During the teacher strike, she told ralliers: “I will throw my body in front of the moving train that is trying to privatize public education.” She said in an interview with KPFK radio last month that charters are “undermining the financial support” for 80 percent of students. In 2015, she declared that a leaked plan developed by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to expand charter schools in L.A. a “war” aimed at “destroying public education in America as we know it.”

Her voice crescendos when she talks about charter schools — as it does when she talks about the underfunding of public schools. She says she’s unapologetically loud.

“It’s wonderful to be combative when people sit quietly and let bad things happen to the school district,” she said, responding to a recent Los Angeles Times editorial calling her “too combative and too ideological.”

“You’re combative where combat is needed. And you’re collaborative wherever you can find it,” she said.

Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools, a unionized charter network, says he’s disappointed by Goldberg’s finger-pointing at charters and believes it detracts from the larger fight to improve district achievement.

Charters are being portrayed as a “mystical boogie man. It’s lazy,” Barr said. “My challenge to her is to be above this fray and get beyond the name-calling, because it’s not productive.” He added, “I know she has the wisdom and the potential to play a statesmanlike role. … I’m hoping that she evolves into that as a candidate. Because we need it.”

Larry Gonzalez, a former board member in the 1980s who worked closely with Goldberg, agrees.One is not better than the other; we’re all in this boat together,” he said. “Whether the charter schools or all public schools are preparing our kids for the future — I think they’re both failing.”

Ben Austin, a longtime education advocate, believes Goldberg could even endanger her political future with her rhetoric. “It might feel very safe for her [now] because of how far the pendulum has swung” recently against charters, he said. “But not that long ago, that issue played a significant role, I think, in Steve Zimmer losing his seat” to education reformer Nick Melvoin in 2017. Zimmer had the strong support of labor unions and UTLA.

Some critics view Goldberg as a union mouthpiece, but the former teacher asserts that she’s “never been anything but an independent person.”

Goldberg has advocated for various union-backed policies previously, such as proposing an Assembly bill in 2002 to give educators a voice in choosing textbooks and developing curriculum. But she’s also stirred the pot: She drew union ire, for example, following the 1991 budget cuts, in which nurses, counselors, and arts programs took a hit. She also supported a proposal tying an increase in beginning teacher salaries to the district having the discretion to place the new hires in vacant positions. Although that rule was never implemented, she believes her stance lost her the union’s endorsement for her second school board run in 1987.

There is a benefit of her current relationship with the union, Gonzalez pointed out: She could bridge the divide between district leadership and educators.

“Who has credibility amongst most of the teachers if it’s not her?” he said. “Teachers have got to be part and parcel of this master plan” to get more funding and to improve schools. “And I think she could be one of them that does it.”

A voice for BD5 students

District 5 has L.A. Unified’s second-highest concentration of Latino students, representing almost 89 percent of the student population. Over a quarter of the students are classified as English learners, and 11 percent require special education services. More than 85 percent live in low-income households. And seven schools were recently identified by the state for assistance for being in the bottom 5 percent of public K-12 schools.

These students have been represented by non-Latino school board members for 16 of the past 24 years.

Some school board members moved to appoint Goldberg to Rodriguez’s vacant seat last August, but they agreed to leave it open until the special election after getting pushback from Latino parents. Goldberg acknowledges that a Latino should hold the seat — just not right now.

“It would a good thing to have the next board member after me be someone who’s Latinx,” she said. “But right now the problem would be that none of them have the name recognition or the power to raise the money, and otherwise this seat would have gone entirely to yet another charter school person.”

One of Goldberg’s Latino competitors, Huntington Park councilwoman Graciela Ortiz, has also raised six figures in donations, at about $130,000. And Latino educator Cynthia Gonzalez secured the Los Angeles Times’s endorsement this month.

Goldberg says she knows the board district well, giving her credibility. She’s currently 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, re-emphasizing that she’d taught in the southeast city of Compton. Latino civil rights powerhouse and labor leader Dolores Huerta has endorsed her as well.

“Anybody who’s taught in Compton and the inner city is in a whole different level of public service that has got to be admired,” Barr, founder of Green Dot, said.

Goldberg at a campaign kickoff event in early January. (Jackie Goldberg/Flickr)

But there are reservations. Flores, the third Latina board member ever elected, said she’s “a strong believer that representation matters.”

“During my time on the board, I had to fight some fights on policies and strategies that some board members didn’t support because they didn’t understand the population that I was serving,” she said. “And my worry is that if you don’t have the understanding of the community that you serve, whether it’s their cultural background or linguistic background, then that community will continue to be left behind.”

The language barrier has already emerged during Goldberg’s campaign. At a candidate forum for parents earlier this month, she said not speaking Spanish was not an issue because her staff can speak it. She then went on to offer her personal phone number for people to call in — then gave the incorrect number in Spanish. When asked by LA School Report at a student-led forum a few days later about that blunder, Goldberg said, “I didn’t do it very well,” adding that calls should go to a staff member anyway.

Speaking Spanish was one of the top three most important characteristics of a future board member in a recent survey of BD5 constituents, conducted by Alliance for a Better Community.

Goldberg does have a track record fighting for district students and minorities. She created a program while at Compton that taught students how to read during every class period. She worked to ease a shortage of bilingual teachers in L.A. Unified, boosted their pay, and helped create a districtwide Spanish Bilingual Immersion Program. She also fought as a city councilwoman in the ’90s against the controversial Proposition 187, which proposed keeping undocumented immigrants out of public education.

“Underserved communities were our main concerns,” Gonzalez recalled.

English language learners are still on Goldberg’s radar. “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.” The district has been steadily increasing its reclassification rate, even though English language learners’ test scores in California and L.A. have barely budged since the new tests were introduced four years ago.

While Goldberg didn’t lay 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:

● “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 recent 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.”

Goldberg understands the need for more teacher supports in high-needs schools too. “If we need to raise the beginning salary again because we’re not getting enough people, we should,” she said. “People who are teaching at all of the schools — but particularly those that are challenged — we need to make sure that we have the best and the highest-quality folks coming to those schools.”

One of board member Melvoin’s solutions to ensure that the least effective teachers don’t end up in the highest-needs schools is to stop forced placement of teachers without permanent positions. The school board last week, however, defeated his resolution, which would have extended the end of forced placement from the district’s lowest-performing schools to all schools.

Former board member Gonzalez is convinced that Goldberg’s passion for students and public education — and her chutzpah — is what this moment needs.

“This cozy little board of education that we have now has done little to nothing in my opinion, and needs to be challenged,” he said. “And Jackie doesn’t get along to go along. She does what’s right for the children.”

Others remain unconvinced.

“A lot has changed in the world around us, but not a lot has changed in the way we think about education,” Austin said. “Are we going to reimagine public education for the kids of 1983 [when Goldberg first joined the board], or are we going to do it for the kids of today and tomorrow? … That is a fundamental question about Jackie Goldberg’s candidacy.”

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