Voting for Education

The community colleges, like the rest of the state’s once-stellar educational complex, have been ignored for some 20 years, which is why Tuesday’s Los Angeles election deserves our attention.

Under a series of Republican governors operating during leaner times, the nine campuses that constitute the Los Angeles Community College District suffered grand fiscal and political indignities: full-time faculty were pitted against part-timers; teachers against administrators; administrators against staff. Students suffered the most, as they faced tuition increases (as high as $16 a unit), class cutbacks and outdated facilities. Newer campuses, such as West L.A., have never been completed. Everyone has been fighting for crumbs.

As a result, Los Angeles community college enrollment, which topped 140,000 in the 1980s, is now down to 100,000.

At this point, I’ll get a little romantic, but with good cause. The community colleges were envisioned by Gov. Pat Brown as the cornerstone of the state’s higher-education program. While the UC and Cal State campuses take the top one-third of high school graduates, the community colleges (once part of a K-through-14 system) provide automatic enrollment and a good shot at transfer to four-year colleges. Their mandates are to provide transfer eligibility, vocational training and education, at a low price (just lowered to $12 a unit) and now SAT requirements.

Without understating the problem of a system with class sizes of 40 and a high dropout rate, it’s still true that the community colleges statewide have educated more minorities, especially blacks and Latinos, than all the UC and Cal State schools combined. They are, for many, the ticket to the American dream.

Gov. Gray Davis has made education a No. 1 priority for his administration, but he has conceded that he won’t look at the community colleges for at least a year. We shouldn’t have to wait. As the widely publicized success of Santa Monica College shows, there’s nothing but potential here, if you know where to look. Until trustee Georgia Mercer hired one a few months ago, the Los Angeles Community College District didn’t even have a public relations consultant. In remaking the image of a two-year system for our multiethnic, diverse community, in some ways we’re starting from the ground up.

I spoke this week with key candidates on Tuesday’s ballot.

David Tokofsky, running for re-election to the Los Angeles Unified School District board (where he is an indispensable force for reform), has been beefing up connections between Los Angeles-area high schools and the community college district. East Los Angeles College, for one, may eventually house 1,000 high school students in buildings constructed with money allocated by Proposition BB. “We need to encourage our students to higher education and to make the transition easier,” Tokofsky told me. “Too many of them think it’s too big a deal, and they fall through the cracks.”

Mercer was appointed to the college board District 5 seat nine months ago, following the death of Kenneth Washington. She backs the new College Commitment program, by which every LAUSD graduate is encouraged to have in hand an acceptance from a university, community college, trade school or military branch.

“Being only a high school grad is a dead end,” she said.

As we spoke, the longtime community activist (she was Mayor Richard Riordan’s contact to the Valley and Jewish community) was preparing for this week’s press conference with DreamWorks SKG, to unveil a joint media training project with Steven Spielberg’s company.

“Public/private partnerships are crucial,” she said, since under the district’s new decentralization policies, each campus has full fiscal independence. Three campuses have vacancies for college presidents; the candidates, said Mercer, must be prepared to be marketers, fund-raisers, to develop course material for online education, not to mention providing remedial math and reading.

“It’s an exciting time for the community colleges, and we have many new roles to fill,” she said. “I want the governor to know that the community colleges are in a pivotal position to answer the state’s needs for teachers. Our student base includes many first-generation Americans who respect teachers and who stay close to their communities.”

Mona Field, a longtime community college political science professor and author of a textbook on California politics, is challenging lackluster incumbent Julia Wu in District 3 and the Rev. Jules Bagneris, a church pastor.

“We have to provide accountability,” said Field, a member of the secular Sholem Community Organization. Field, head of the teachers union at Glendale’s community college (which is not part of the Los Angeles district), is credited with fostering the kind of teacher-administrator relations missing from the community college district. “We have to show that the community colleges work in terms of retaining our student body and our scores on Ready-To-Read.” Among her model programs is one in which welfare mothers prepare for careers as preschool teachers.

The Los Angeles college district has hired a new lobbyist, whose first job is to convince state legislators that the community colleges deserve what Mercer calls “a fair-share” of the $10 million slated for grades K through 14. Infrastructure repairs are also critical. “The trustees made a lot of mistakes, so I’m not in favor of going back to the voters for capital improvements,” said Field. “But we deserve the state money that is there.”

Addressing her remarks to Gov. Davis, Field said, “I see that the state is granting visas to high-tech workers. There’s no reason for that. Our community colleges should be training the workers California needs.”

With energized board members in place (high marks are also given to Warren Furutani, aide to Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, and Sylvia Scott-Hayes, a Cal State Los Angeles professor) the community colleges can get down to business.

After Tuesday’s election, there will be plenty of reasons to pay attention.

Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is the author of “A Woman’s Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life” (On The Way Press). Her e-mail address is

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Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through