Much of the recent history of the Los Angeles Unified School District is also part of the past of Tamar Galatzan, who now sits on the governing board of that giant bureaucracy of a school district.
She was a student at Hesby Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley when a court ordered the LAUSD to desegregate in the late 1970s. Galatzan’s parents, fearing the plan would require her to be bused to a distant East Los Angeles school, pulled her out of Hesby and enrolled her the day school at Valley Beth Shalom. Many parents, generally white and middle- and upper class, did the same in an exodus from Los Angeles schools that severely damaged public education here.
From Valley Beth Shalom, Galatzan went to the private Brentwood School and, finally, back to the public Birmingham High School, from which she graduated. By then, the desegregation plan had been abandoned and, she said, “My folks believed in public schools.” Galatzan’s own sons are currently first- and third-grade students in a Los Angeles public school.
Today, she said, that belief is shared by “a lot of parents, especially in the Jewish community” where there is “support for public schools.” In addition, she said, “We are seeing many kids returning to public schools from private schools because of family finances. It will be interesting to see if these kids stay in the district once the economy picks up.”
Now, as a LAUSD board member, Galatzan, an attorney, is involved in another major educational development — a big change in the hiring, firing and assessment of teachers and the management of schools. While not nearly as dramatic as the desegregation controversy, this new change will eventually reach classrooms throughout the district, affecting the education of every student.
I interviewed Galatzan recently at her district office on the edge of the campus of her old high school — now Birmingham Charter Community High School. She represents LAUSD’s District 3, which extends from Studio City, Sherman Oaks and parts of Encino north to Porter Ranch and Granada Hills.
She is one of a four-member majority of the seven-person board who are fighting the teachers union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), over the proposals. Galatzan and the others consider themselves reformers, although the UTLA does not describe them as such.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa backs Galatzan and the others in their fight against the union. Although the mayor of Los Angeles has no power over the public schools, he campaigned hard and raised money for Galatzan and her school board allies. “One of the things the mayor has done is really make education an issue people are talking about in our community,” she said.
Galatzan and her allies on the board, along with new LAUSD superintendent John Deasy and Villaraigosa, are strong supporters of a policy that would change the management of many schools — Public School Choice. It would allow outsiders, such as private charter school companies, to take over low-performing schools. Insiders, such as groups of teachers, could also compete for running their school. Both have already happened in some Los Angeles schools, where charter firms and teachers are operating campuses.
Charter schools are supported by public funds but are run independently, either by a charter school company or by other groups that have taken over a school.
At present, the community around a school can vote for school choice in an advisory ballot. “I hated the community vote,” Galatzan said. “I foresaw it would be like a political campaign, with fliers and busing people” (to vote).
Instead, her version of school choice would forgo the community advisory vote and make it easier for charter companies or other groups to take over public schools.
The new arrangement changes life for teachers. At present, schools operate under a long, detailed UTLA contract, with many rules governing working conditions. Deasy, Galatzan and the other board supporters want a simplified contract, much shorter and with fewer rules, that would give more power to each school in making teacher assignments, as well as hiring and firing. In some schools, for example, teachers are evaluated every year, and those who don’t make the grade aren’t rehired.
“Union rules, that’s what keeps coming back,” Galatzan said of the disputes with the teachers union. “That’s what it’s about. When you delve into it, it’s not the teachers, it’s the rules, about staffing and firing.”
Deasy and the board want to turn over all or part of two low-performing Los Angeles schools to Green Dot, a major privately owned charter school organization that currently runs 17 public charters in the LAUSD and one in Inglewood. Involved are parts of Jordan High School and Clay Middle School. The UTLA is trying to block the move.
I sympathize with everybody involved in this fight. The issues are arcane. They are hard to explain. There are huge disagreements over the best way to evaluate teacher performance. In fact, few agree on the best way to teach kids.
But one point stands out. The Los Angeles public schools are worth saving and worthy of our attention. As Galatzan told me, “A lot of the values I was raised with — [such as] respect for different cultures and religions — [are] something you find in the public schools.” Finding a way to preserve these values while improving the quality of education is the latest chapter in the public school life of Tamar Galatzan.
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).