Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


On Tuesday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”

 

Letters to the Editor


 

Jewish-Black Ties

The outrageous assertion that blacks and Jews have “passed through a period of hostility and animosity” and come together for “issues ranging from civil rights legislation to Israel” is absurd (“Jewish-Black Ties Loosen Over Years,” Jan. 14).

If it takes “a common thread to revive the relationship,” such as working to defeat David Duke’s run for political office, why does nothing similar happen against the left? The so-called coalition did not denounce black congresswoman Cynthia McKinney for her anti-Israel, anti-Jewish beliefs. It does not distance itself from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for their questionable attitudes about Jews.

The coalition does not condemn the NAACP for its racially inflammatory statements and divisiveness. When former NAACP leader Benjamin Chavis was removed for theft, he blamed the Jews. Lee Alcorn, president of the Dallas NAACP, stated his concern with black-Jewish coalitions because of what he called Jews’ preoccupation with money.

The assertion that anti-Semitism is not as strong among blacks as among mutual enemies of blacks and Jews is wrong. A 1996 Gallup survey reported that blacks were more likely than whites to blame liberal Jews for what is wrong with America. The Anti- Defamation League’s own surveys reveal that blacks have higher rates of anti-Semitic beliefs than whites.

A United Nations conference on racism held in South Africa had anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and anti-American themes. Hundreds of prominent American blacks, including Jackson, attended to show their support.

Superficial public relations events such as speaking at Black-Jewish forums do not indicate anything beyond political calculation. Jews would be far wiser to form coalitions with the political right, not the intolerant political left.

Caroline Miranda
North Hollywood

Shawn Green

When Shawn Green arrives for spring training with his new team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, he will be leaving a piece of himself behind while at the same time, he will be taking along large portions of our L.A. Jewish pride. Such is the dilemma that Peter Dreier’s (“Goodbye Shawn Green,” Jan. 21) 8-year-old twin daughters are faced with; who are they to root for now?

To date, there have been 161 men of Jewish heritage to have played major league baseball. The White Sox and the Tigers have listed 17 and 16 respectively, while the Dodgers and Giants have fielded 15 each (those damned Yankees have only had six).

So it looks as if we may have to wait for another Jewish Dodger. But we Jews are good at waiting. Green isn’t the Messiah, but it may take almost as long for the likes of another Shawn Green to wear Dodger Blue. In the meantime … go Diamondbacks!

Jonathan Blank
Calabasas Hills

Birthright Exploitation

I am no supporter of the extreme aspects of Israel Solidarity Movement’s (ISM) agenda, but I am appalled by Gaby Wenig’s implicit suggestion that Jewish love for Israel should come with a political litmus test (“Do ISM Activists Exploit Birthright?” Jan. 21). Perhaps Wenig does not know that there are many Israelis (Jews and non-Jews alike) who have concerns about “the occupation,” that “pro-Palestinian” is not a synonym for “anti-Israel” and that all of us who “love Israel,” as Wenig understands Birthright’s aim, whether we are on the left or the right, have a wide range of views on how Israel can live up to its full potential for social, economic and political justice.

Despite the fact the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) does not appear among the list of Birthright funders on birthrightisrael.com, Western region associate director Allyson Taylor suggests that Birthright alumni who engage in political activism with which she disagrees should have to repay the cost of their trip. Does Taylor also think Aish HaTorah should send a collection agency after every Discovery alumnus who steps foot in a Reform or Conservative synagogue? Should college kids who flirt with Buddhism or Hinduism repay their parents for their bar and bat mitzvah expenses? Perhaps all the ex-AJCongress members in Los Angeles should simply bill the national office for the return of their pre-1999 contributions.

Shawn Landres
Los Angeles

On behalf of 4,000 Birthright Israel alumni from greater Los Angeles, we are responding to the article (“Do ISM Activists Exploit Birthright?” Jan. 21).

It would be extremely unfortunate if your article left the impression with your readers that ISM activists taking advantage of free Birthright Israel trips is a significant problem. In fact, Birthright Israel staff has only been able to find evidence of six people out of more than 70,000 participants who have done so.

Birthright Israel, which provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26, is one of the most powerful and successful Jewish continuity programs ever devised. As program alumni ourselves, we can confirm the findings of a recent Brandeis University study, Bbirthright Israel participants have a stronger and more sustained connection to Israel and the Jewish people than do their peers.

Thanks to the foresight and funding of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, our groundbreaking birthright Israel alumni association provides local alumni with opportunities to connect with each other and with the L.A. Jewish community. Information is available at www.socal.birthrightisrael.com.

We know Birthright Israel and its alumni association has been instrumental in our connection to Israel and the Jewish community. We would hate for the success of this important organization to be tarnished by a story that creates a controversy where there really isn’t one.

Kimberly Gordon, Joshua Kessler, Abtin Missaghi, Ben Schwartzman,
Members of the Leadership Board
Birthright Israel Alumni Association

 

Giving to the Future


Financial wizard Michael Steinhardt is blunt in assessing
the future of North American Jewry.

The next generation is “mostly Jewish ignoramuses,”
Steinhardt said. “We haven’t convinced the general Jewish population of the
value of a Jewish education.”

Steinhardt’s bleak assessment was aimed not at Jews in
general, but at a select group: those who have donated at least $100,000 — and
as much as several million — to Jewish day schools.

There are only 1,800 such major supporters of the country’s
approximately 700 Jewish day schools, however, and that, Steinhardt said, is
“not enough.”

“We need to double that number,” he said.

Steinhardt was addressing the third annual Donor Assembly of
the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) held in Century City
from Feb. 2-4, the day school advocacy group he launched five years ago.

For the first time, those big donors mingled with Jewish
communal and day school professionals in a leadership assembly of more than 600
people, aiming to hammer out a national strategy to promote Jewish day schools.

The gathering comes at a time when many day schools, viewed
as solid foundations for lifelong Jewish identity, are strapped for funds. And
many who want to attend cannot afford the high cost of a Jewish education.

Some 200,000 children attend Jewish day schools in this
country, 79 percent of them Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox.

Among the top goals of the philanthropists was finding new
sources of money.

To bolster their advocacy effort, PEJE offered the initial
findings of a survey of 177 of those big day school supporters. They also
released the results of interviews with 65 other donors, potential donors and
day school experts.

The survey, conducted in October and November by TDC
Research of Boston, found that among current donors, 49 percent give to day
schools because they see them as vehicles to “ensure Jewish continuity” and 13
percent were motivated to give because they had a personal connection, such as
a child or grandchild in day school.

But among donors, nondonors and experts, the study found
that: 81 percent believe that day schools ensure continuity; 78 percent
supported day schools because of the Jews’ “collective future”; 75 percent
backed day schools because they “foster communities of committed Jews.”

Of those who responded, 97 percent also gave money to their
synagogue; 92 percent aided their local federation; 73 percent helped some kind
of Israel-focused program and 59 percent backed their local Jewish Community
Center.

The donors surveyed hailed from 29 states and Canada; were
usually parents or grandparents of day school students and were sat on day
school boards.

One such donor at the conference was Claire Ellman of La
Jolla, whose three children attended the San Diego Jewish Academy, a
pluralistic, 700-student school with students from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Ellman has just helped the school raise $33 million toward a
new building, the largest single effort to date in the city’s Jewish community.

Born in South Africa, Ellman said her grandfather started Cape
Town’s first Jewish day school and infused her with a love for Jewish
learning.

But she believes not all donors support education for the
same reasons.

“A lot of people are going to give to Jewish education
because they feel so strongly about continuity,” she said, “but also because of
a guilt complex” that they personally failed to teach their children Jewish
values.

The study did not reach that conclusion, though it did find
that 10 percent of donors said the most important reason to back Jewish day
schools was to teach Jewish knowledge.

Ellman, who is also vice chair of the Continental Council
for Jewish Day School Education, a program of the United Jewish Communities and
the Jewish Education Service of North America — works to build ties among the
day schools, Jewish federations, religious institutions and the general
community — welcomed the donor study.

“The study is critical, because for the first time we’ve
asked donors and nondonors why they do or don’t fund Jewish education.”

Many of those who don’t support Jewish schools said they
either were not aware of them or found them too parochial, the study found.

But the study also recommends against trying to win this
group over.

Instead, it recommends spreading the word to “neutral” Jews
who may not have any personal ties to the school, but who believe education
helps ensure a thriving Jewish community.

Meanwhile, Steinhardt pointed to statistics showing that
only 20 percent of philanthropy by North American Jews goes to Jewish causes,
down from 50 percent 50 years ago.

“What we lack is a sense of priority,” he said.

But Michael Rosenzweig, a board member of the New Atlanta
Jewish Community High School, said the fact that there are so few donors to
Jewish day schools is both good and bad news when it comes to doubling their
numbers.

“The good news” is that doubling their numbers is easy to
do, he said. “The bad news is, it’s easy to do because it’s so small.”

World Briefs


U.S. to Reduce Sinai Presence

The United States has convinced Israel and Egypt to accept an immediate cut in the American presence in the Sinai, JTA has learned. According to an Israeli official, the United States will continue to lead the Multinational Force and Observers — established under the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt — but the American presence will be significantly reduced. Israel and Egypt rejected an earlier idea proposed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to reduce the U.S. presence to as few as 26 men. Under U.S. pressure, the two countries submitted a joint counterproposal in which the American presence will be more than “nominal,” but significantly fewer than the current 900 men, the Israeli official said. The plan, which has not yet been made public, received U.S. government approval Tuesday.

Presidents Conference Rejects
Meretz

Meretz USA’s bid to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was rejected. Tuesday’s vote at a meeting of the umbrella group of American Jewry came after the conference’s membership committee recommended rejecting Meretz USA, saying it has too small a budget and scope of impact. However, some conference members say the 17-14 vote was political. The conference leadership “really doesn’t want us on board,” said Charney Bromberg, executive director of Meretz USA, a peace and civil rights group associated with the left-wing Israeli political party. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which applied for adjunct membership and was recommended for admission by the Presidents Conference’s membership committee, also was rejected.

Court Won’t OK Firing

A U.S. court refused to approve a Florida’s university plan to fire a Palestinian professor who is accused of having ties to terrorism. On Monday, the court recommended that the dispute between the University of South Florida and Sami Al-Arian be submitted to binding arbitration. A spokesperson for the university said the school is still deciding how to proceed. Critics of Al-Arian, who is suspended from his tenured position, say he raised money for terrorist groups, brought terrorists into the United States and established groups that support terror. Al-Arian denies the charges.

Statue Honors Wartime Hero

A statue was unveiled in Los Angeles honoring a late Japanese diplomat serving in wartime Lithuania who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. The statue of Chiune Sugihara was dedicated last Friday in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district. Jewish, Japanese and Lithuanian officials were among those attending the ceremony.

No U.S. Tax on Shoah Restitution

President Bush on Tuesday signed a law excluding Holocaust restitution payments from federal tax. The Holocaust Restitution Tax Fairness Act of 2002 passed Congress earlier this year.

Rabin Assassin Testifies

Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin testified in the trial of a former Shin Bet operative. Yigal Amir appeared Wednesday at the trial of Avishai Raviv, an undercover agent accused of knowing in advance about the 1995 assassination but failing to prevent it. Amir testified that he never told Raviv he intended to murder Rabin, but did say that someone should kill the prime minister. Amir also testified that among the people who heard him make the remark was legislator Benny Elon, leader of the far-right Moledet Party. Elon denied the accusation: “I don’t know what is going on in Amir’s twisted mind,” he said. “Seven years ago he assassinated the prime minister, and today he’s trying to perform character assassination.”

Hamas Associates Arrested

Four brothers have been arrested in Dallas for alleged ties to Hamas. The four, who work for the InfoCom computer company, were arrested Wednesday, according to WFAA-TV in Dallas. They were accused of having fundraising ties to Hamas and the Holy Land Foundation, a charity closed last year after the Treasury Department claimed it funneled funds to Hamas. Attorney General John Ashcroft is expected to comment on the arrests Wednesday afternoon.

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