A Class Act
The political question of the week is, “What will David Tokofsky do now?” For four years, Tokofsky, the veteran teacher and former coach of Marshall High School’s champion academic decathlon team, has played the role of maverick on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board. He exposed the lack of textbooks in district schools; publicized the scandal-plagued Belmont Learning Complex; crusaded against “faddish” educational philosophies; and urged an end to social promotions (implementation of which was rescinded last week by Superintendent Ruben Zacharias). Against the “Cuckoo’s Nest” aura of LAUSD, Tokofsky has sounded like a visionary.
But now the outsider has to come in. Insurgent candidates backed by Mayor Richard Riordan’s Coalition for Kids won astounding victories on April 9, as Caprice Young and Mike Lansing defeated incumbents Jeff Horton and George Kiriyama, respectively. Genethia Hayes challenged incumbent Barbara Boudreaux and has forced a June runoff. Tokofsky, the only seated board member to get the mayor’s endorsement, is likely to become president of a board majority that is poised for revolution.
And just in the nick of time. There will be more money coming into all levels of public instruction during the Gray Davis administration — from federal and state coffers, plus a special fund set aside from cigarette litigation — than any time since the postwar baby boom: 51 new local schools over the next five years, the largest educational public works project in half a century. Tokofsky is the rare board member who straddles both classroom and bureaucracy: He alone among board members was at Zacharias’ birthday party last year.
Can all the money in the world reverse the erosion of respect and support for the 700,000-student school district?
“There’s no time for a learning curve,” Tokofsky told me last week. “It’s urgent that we get results in the first year.” Results mean test scores going up and dropout rates down (they’re now about 35 percent).
The challenges facing the district are daunting. About 80 percent of all incoming kindergarten students are already two years behind, he said. Many children don’t know their colors and can’t hold a pencil.
Teachers are another controversy. Tokofsky, who came to the board with solid union credentials, nevertheless understands rampant anti-teacher sentiment. In fact, he was appalled that so few teachers cried out about the textbook shortage, a sign that many teachers are still in the 1960s time warp, where textbooks of any kind were politically suspect.
“Today’s textbooks are intellectually demanding, a great teaching asset,” said Tokofsky, who added that he’ll back the testing of teachers only after the 7,000-teacher shortage is met.
And what is teacher competence, anyway? While many blame teachers for the schools’ decline, Tokofsky reminds us that the LAUSD (and schools everywhere) are now losing through retirement what he calls the “best and brightest” teachers in history — that generation of women, now in their 50s and 60s, who came to teaching because they had no other career options.
“These wonderful women are irreplaceable,” Tokofsky said, “because they have the memory of what real learning can mean and what education can mean to the whole society.”
As for secession, Tokofsky warns that however bad things are now, they might be worse if the Valley secedes from the city, a move, he said, that is based on faulty financing. “They [the Valley schools] don’t have the resources; they’ll be straddled with debt,” he said. It’s easier, and makes more sense, to fix the problems at their core.
“This is going to be interesting,” said one Jewish community political activist. “Can he really formulate an agenda that moves the district ahead?” If he can, Tokofsky instantly becomes the most credible authority on educational reform, a potential candidate for state Assembly or state superintendent of public instruction; Tokofsky stays in close touch with former Superintendent Bill Honig.
“Honig had the missionary zeal to make public education important to everyone,” Tokofsky told me.
But we are way ahead of ourselves. As of this writing, Tokofsky’s win hangs suspended. Only 301 votes separated the fully bilingual Tokofsky from his challenger, activist Yolie Flores Aguilar. When Mayor Riordan’s ad campaign urged voters to throw the bums out, he neglected to whisper “except Tokofsky.” His opponent, Aguilar, with no classroom experience, ran as “the community’s candidate.”
A special note: In contrast to last year’s high-voltage Katz-Alarcon state Senate campaign, the Tokofsky-Aguilar race carefully avoided racial minefields. Aguilar has strong ties in the Latino-Jewish coalition. And Tokofsky won endorsements of key Latino legislators, including Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. Good conduct by all.
Tokofsky’s win awaits final tallying of absentee and provisional ballots on April 27. Then the future can begin. We’ll be watching.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of “A Woman’s Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life” (On the Way Press). Excerpts from her book will be featured in the performance “Momma, Mommy, Mom,” May 2, at UJ’s Gindi Auditorium. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.