Can Nick Melvoin bring more Jews to LAUSD schools?

June 29, 2017
Nicholas Melvoin. Photo from nickmelvoin.com

One of the many items on Nick Melvoin’s agenda as a new member of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board is whether he can help make the L.A. public schools more attractive to middle-class Jewish parents and their children.

As I prepared to interview him recently, I knew this might not be the most pressing issue facing an enormous, financially troubled school district confronted with the many problems of urban America. But I thought it was important given that this group’s support had been significant to the public schools before it started to desert them in recent years. I had discussed the matter often with the man Melvoin defeated at the polls in May, school board President Steve Zimmer, and I wanted to know his successor’s views.

But, like I said, there’s so much else at play. Melvoin and the other new school board member, Kelly Gonez, are committed to a larger remodeling of the district, which often has proved to be ungovernable. They were backed in the election by rich supporters of charter schools who long have criticized LAUSD. These contributors want more charter schools, which are public schools not bound by union contracts and other district rules and regulations. The charter school backers say they provide a better education for students.

The teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, see the charters as a union-busting device. Complicating the matter, because of the intricacies of school finance, some state funds go to the charters, which reduces the money available to regular public schools.

Charter school supporters and their opponents, the unions, spent $15 million on the election between Melvoin and Zimmer, with the charter supporters donating twice as much as their foes. The result was the most expensive school board election in U.S. history.

No doubt, Melvoin, 31, and Gonez, 28, got an idea of how hard remaking the district would be when they were schooled in the district’s byzantine ways by veteran staff members at a three-day session from June 21-23. I met Melvoin in his campaign manager’s Mid-Wilshire office after one of the sessions. I could imagine the scene: Veteran educators, resistant to change, assuring the young newcomers, “Kids, listen to us. We know the ropes. This is how we’ve always done it.”

I could see that he needed a shot of energy, and he immediately steered me to a Starbucks, where we talked about the importance of keeping white, middle-class students in LAUSD, including Jews.

First, though, a bit of context: The district in 2015 reported that 74 percent of its students were Latino, 9.8 percent white, 8.8 percent African-American, 3.8 percent Asian and 3.5 percent Native American and other ethnicities. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, along with USC’s Richard Flory and Diane Winston, found that about half of the white students in LAUSD are Jewish. That’s based on figures from 2000; Phillips said newer information is badly needed.

The school district reports that 84 percent of students attending the most recent academic year qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, the federal definition of poverty.

Melvoin said he thinks it’s important to increase the number of middle-class students in the Los Angeles schools. The additional middle-class parents, who vote more than the poor, would increase political influence on board members, maybe resulting in improved policies and administration. More middle-class students would make Los Angeles schools more economically and ethnically diverse, which studies show improves education and civic involvement. And more students would increase the amount of state aid — allocated by enrollment size — going to LAUSD.

Melvoin said he saw the importance of middle-class involvement in his campaign. “When you have a group of parent advocates engaged in a way that they haven’t been in the past, you have this advocacy base, this group of politically aware parents with political and social capital,” he said.

Melvoin said his involvement in the Jewish community and interaction with other young Jews showed that more Jewish students would bring to the schools a more diverse cultural experience when Jews, Latinos, African-Americans and other ethnicities mingle in classrooms, the theater, bands and in social life.

“I’m on the board of the Union for Reform Judaism and involved with The Jewish Federation and some of the young professional cohorts, so I think having a diverse school setting is an important value. … For our community, being in integrated schools and having our kids being in school with kids from a lot of diverse communities will strengthen the education our kids will receive,” he said.

Melvoin said that more Jewish students would bring to the schools a more diverse cultural experience.

But Melvoin, who was a middle school teacher in Los Angeles for two years, conceded it will be a tough sell, especially at poor schools where many students have limited English skills and test scores are lower.

“Parents first look at test scores,” Melvoin said. “Until they see academic improvement, they won’t send their kids. … Until you improve the core instruction, I don’t think some of these middle-class parents will be interested.”

I asked him about what it will take to improve the schools. “Great teachers, great principals, engaged parents, rigorous curriculum, deeper dives into content,” he said.

I don’t think any of previous board members would disagree with those generalities. But his predecessors have been stymied by obstacles big and small of which Melvoin still is unaware.

He will have to deal with hostile unions, especially when the board tries to reduce pension and benefit costs that administrators have warned are driving the district into bankruptcy. Charter school advocates will demand action from Melvoin after they financed his campaign. Parents will besiege him with complaints.

All this for a salary of $45,637 a year.

Charles Taylor Kerchner, a professor and research scholar at Claremont Graduate University, described the new school board member’s challenge well on the Education Week website: “Remember the little dog you used to have: the one that chased cars but was smart enough not to ever catch one? Nick Melvoin caught the car. Now, he and his big money backers have to figure out what to do with the nation’s second largest school district.”

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).

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