The crisis in the Los Angeles Unified School District, now in its third week, has required of the organized Jewish community all the self-control it can muster. To be straight about it, the board’s reform coalition, that came to power with a strong Jewish vote, botched the handling of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias in what many regard as a lapse of due process. In the ensuing blood-letting, Jewish community interests have been repeatedly spotlighted in the press and the Internet, as if every Jew lived on the Westside; as if there were some sort of cabal. To show how strongly the urge to hide has become, this week a long-time Jewish political observer wondered aloud what the Jewish community’s interest was in the school board’s actions “downtown.” How quickly we forget, when the fire is hot.
For while it is formally true, as various community leaders told The Los Angeles Times, that no formal Jewish agenda was at stake in the school management impasse, that very denial is an embarrassment to our larger purpose. Jewish parents and the disproportionately large number of Jewish political representatives on the school board and throughout the political system, work tirelessly to raise public school standards despite nearly 25 years of neglect. It should never be necessary to deny that we, in this of all communities, have an interest in quality education for all of our kids. Or to duck from making things better.
The desire to step away from a reform agenda is one of the tragedies of the current moment. The school system needs new books, new toilets, new standards and a new system in place, lest it lose the historic billions of dollars now available for school construction and repair. Board President Genethia Hayes is right: There is urgency now.
Yet, it’s appalling that in the haphazard way the board ushered in Howard Miller, known as a brilliant attorney and expert in the real estate law contingencies that dominate the current crisis at Belmont and South Gate toxic land sites, everything that reform stands for is at risk. Miller, for one, deserved better than an introduction as the Ghost of School Busing.
It’s equally dreadful — and wrong — to hear observers equate the treatment of Zacarias with the so-called exclusion of Latinos from the black-Jewish coalition during the Bradley years. In the Bradley era, the Latino population in Los Angeles was 17 percent, and the Latino “coalition” was one man, Ed Roybal, a friend to all.
As bad is the way that reform ranks have splintered. David Tokofsky, who is Jewish, bilingual and represents a majority-Latino district, has been forced into the uncharacteristic position of defender of the status quo in order to give Zacarias his due. Had the board merely listened to more voices, there would have been a solid 5-2 vote on key issues, rather than the current fractious 4-3.
The loss of goodwill between ethnic groups based on this one lapse is incalculable. Witness Frank Del Olmo’s overheated op-ed piece in Sunday’s Times “Long Knives Are Out for the City’s Puppeteers,” takes aim at Mayor Richard Riordan and his would-be heir, Steven Soboroff. Both Soboroff and potential rival Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky each make the pitch that they alone are true peacemakers. Meanwhile another contender, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa picks up Valley votes by advocating school break-up.
Yet, despite the botch, the need for swift action, with respect for process, is stronger than ever. That Jews are perceived by others as synonymous with reform may not be a bad thing. Gregory Rodriguez, a close observer of Latino affairs, told me that it would be devastating to the city if Jews recoil from action.
“Jews are the political elite by default,” he said, “and we need them to be active throughout the area. When the WASPs left the city, it went into crisis.” Although several Latino activists this week were decrying “patronizing” and “elite” actions of Westside liberals, led and energized by the mayor, and insinuating that there was some misguided effort to keep Latinos from power, the larger truth, acknowledged universally, is that without that elite the city school system has gone to rot.
I spoke this week with Raphael J. Sonenshein, author of the classic “Politics in Black and White” about the black-Jewish coalition during the Bradley years. Sonenshein told me that although Latinos and Jews have had little formal relationship over the past decade, in fact they’ve been heading down parallel tracks.
“In charter reform and the votes against the propositions, Jews and Latinos voted much the same way in both 1997 and 1999,” he said. “It would be a terrible mistake for either group to characterize the other based on this one [Zacarias] incident. This wasn’t a fair test.”
Sonenshein cautioned that having similar reform goals does not mean coalitions will form naturally. The rising Latino population is intent on using its strength; the Jewish community is intent on reinfusing its civic vision. Everything is up for grabs and subject to misinterpretation.
“All groups are casting about for new partners,” he said. “It’s like they are at a college mixer, everyone is looking around.”
If the future of Los Angeles always resides with reform — and history shows this is true — than today’s reformers must reclaim the high ground, and learn a new dance.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of the Jewish Journal, hosts historian Riv-Ellen Prell for a talk on “The Anxiety of Assimilation” at the Skirball Cultural Center on Sunday, Nov. 21 at 11 p.m. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.