Los Angeles Herald Examiner (July 5, 1987)

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner (July 5, 1987)

Title – “The limits of working in the system”

Many Latinos were recently surprised to learn of Dr. Julian Nava’s emotional appearance before the Los Angeles Unified School Board of Education on the question of who should have been chosen to run the district. In particular, he was angry at the board’s selection of an outsider, Dr. Leonard Britton, superintendent of the Dade County system in Miami, over Latino candidate William Anton, deputy superintendent of the L.A. district. When I spoke to him the other day in his home, he was still upset.

Regrettably, Nava’s display of anger and his public criticism of “the system” went unreported in the press, for it marked a significant departure for the onetime school-board member. His reputation as a soft-spoken negotiator and peacemaker has been built on the view that the issue is never one of whether the system is good or bad but of “learning how to make it work for us.” He new seems to be questioning that approach.

Nava, currently a professor at Cal State Northridge, was first elected to the school board in 1967. A year later, 10,000 Chicano students walked out of five East Side high schools in protest of, among other things, the lack of Mexican-American teachers, counselors and administrators and the 50 percent dropout rate among Mexican-American students. Although Nava sympathized with many of the students’ grievances, he refused to be pressured into leading an assault on the system.

At the time, according to Nava, the district employed three principals of Mexican extraction and “making it that far was more a matter of connections than brains.” A thousandth of a point on the written exam often separated candidates, so oral exams and performance evaluations, clearly more subjective measures, counted heavily in the selection process.

Through negotiation, Nava changed the rules. He persuaded the district to exhaust its pervious candidate list when filling an opening before compiling a new one. That way, Nava said, “No. 25 could get a job.” As a result, he broke up the all-white old boys network. In 1979, his last year on the board, 105 Latino administrators were working for the district. In Nava’s eyes, the appointment of Anton would have vindicated his “work-within-the-system” philosophy and benefited the district as well.

“How could reasonable men and women not comprehend the importance of a Latino appointment [for school superintendent] at this juncture?” an exasperated Nava asked me. After all, within 10 years, two-thirds of the system’s students will be Latino (currently they represent 56 percent). By the turn of the century, a majority of Los Angeles may be Latino. Nava’s own answers to his question are reflective of a man who is unusually irritated with the system he has fought to preserve as the starting point for all discussion.

First, his faith in the constructive power of coalitions of blacks, Jews and liberal Democrats has been shaken in recent years by the failure of these groups to support Latinos or Latino issues aggressively. As he asserted in his presentation to the board: “Among Latinos, we find the clear impression that a majority of the board want to deny the position of superintendent to a qualified Latino for fear that the growing number of Latinos would be translated into power that might upset some established political interests.”

History supports Nava’s impression. The powers that be in Los Angeles, whatever their political philosophy, are largely indifferent to the needs of Latinos. For instance, no non-Latino city leader has forcefully come forth (Mayor Tom Bradley has been conspicuously silent) to help Latinos fight Gov. George Deukmejian’s proposed East Side prison. Neither is City Hall officially concerned about the disappearing industry on the East Side, which means thousands of lost jobs. Nor are City Council chambers ringing with debate on what to do with the numerous toxic dumps in the community.

Politically, even moderate Latino candidates often find it difficult to attract liberal support. When Nava decided to run for state superintendent of schools in 1970, liberals refused to support his candidacy. Until Richard Alatorre was elected, no Latino had served on the City Council for 23 years. Statewide, Latino assemblymen and senators rarely served more than one term before the early ‘70s. The emergence of an East Side political machine can be traced in part to this lack of support for Latinos in politics.

Second, Nava blames the process of electing board members by district for the board’s lack of sensitivity toward Latinos. Since the voters established election by districts in 1979, Nava said, “each of the board members has become a little Caesar who dominates [his or her] own district, caring less for the entire system.” In contrast to at-large elections, school-board candidates running for district office don’t have to rely on the Latino vote to get elected, so “they don’t care about it.” The end result, Nava claims, has been the rise of “rotten boroughs.”

(Generally, though, Latinos support election by district since it was almost impossible to elect Latinos in at-large elections. Nava was an exception. Successful suits to bring about district elections has dramatically increased the number of Latino elected officials throughout the Southwest.)

As bad as board insensitivity to Latinos, Nava said, is the political maneuvering of some board members. For example, he accuses Roberta Weintraub, who was elected to the board for her stand against busing, of leading the crusade against home-grown candidates. He said reliable insiders had told him that Weintraub “let it be known that she did not want the new superintendent to come from the ranks of the L.A. district.” Nava feels that Weintraub still carries a vendetta against most district administrators because of their alleged role in implementing court-mandated busing. “They [the administrators] got the message when the Bus Stop board fired (former Superintendent William) Johnson.”

Third, under the likes of Weintraub, improving the quality of education is a difficult task. According to Nava, “board decisions are not based on what is good for the district at large, but mainly on those things that affect the board members. For education, this is disastrous, since the effects of education are general.”

Nava dismisses the school board’s contention that it went outside the system because it wanted a nationally recognized educator as a “sham.” Former L.A. school Superintendent Harry Handler had a national reputation, he says, and “his hands were still tied” insofar as he had to “count votes on the board before initiating new programs in the schools.” But because Handler was a product of the L.A. system – 30 years in the district, five as chief – Nava believes he and his staff were able to move educational mountains. In selecting Britton, the first superintendent to be brought in since 1948, Nava thus sees the board consciously moving to increase its own power at the expense of the superintendent.

The real question is whether Britton’s experience as chief of the Dade County system will help him run the one here. The two districts share some characteristics: a steady influx of non-English-speaking immigrants, an increasing minority population (mostly Latino) and escalating school enrollment.

But Nava said that Britton faces difficult problems in managing the L.A. school system. For one, he will walk into the job with only the most basic knowledge of how it works. More important, Britton lacks a “corps of loyalists to protect him from an impatient board.” Unless he quickly moves to develop political allies in Sacramento and the community, which he can use as leverage, Nava fears the new superintendent will be powerless.

Much has been made of Britton’s successful implementation of a comprehensive bilingual program in the Dade County school system. Indeed, some school board members who voted for him cited this achievement as a crucial factor. But, as Nava points out, Cubans have real political muscle in Florida, with many of them middle-class and professional. In short, the political atmosphere there is much more friendly toward such programs and others that seek to upgrade education.

In contrast, a sizeable number of the Latino students in the L.A. system comes from poor Mexican-American families. Many of the parents are economic refugees from Central America. Others are undocumented. Indisputably, these people do not have the money or the know-how to organize and force the school board to address their needs. Nava believes that Anton, as a district veteran, would have been in a far better position to rally support for their cause.

When asked what we should do about the failure of the board to appoint Anton, Nava hesitated. “Maybe Anton should sue the system,” he said. Then, ever reluctant to part with his “work-within-the-system” philosophy, he mused: “Perhaps the school district is too large and should be divided into workable units.”

As for me, I stopped believing in fairy tales and miracles a long time ago.