As we near the primary election and the field of mayoral candidates shrinks, issues like crime and homelessness are dominating the race. Unfortunately, the mayoral candidates’ discussion of K-12 education in Los Angeles has largely been limited to public safety issues. While the mayor has limited power over the Los Angeles Unified School District and other districts within city limits, voters make it clear they closely associate the mayor with the successes and failures of public schools.
A February poll by Great Public Schools Now, for example, found that 85% of registered voters say the mayor is responsible for the quality of education provided at Los Angeles schools. And voters don’t think the current mayor is living up to that responsibility. Just 12% of Angelenos surveyed say there is a high-quality public school available in every neighborhood in the city.
With voters wanting better schools, the mayoral candidates would be wise to explain to voters how their policies could help improve the future for students. Beyond needing to lift the quality of education, the most pressing problems facing LAUSD are declining enrollment and an increasingly unsustainable budget.
LAUSD schools receive most of their funding based on student enrollment, so drops in enrollment are going to cause a reduction in the state funding that schools receive. LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently said the looming fiscal cliff caused by losing students and the ending of federal COVID-19 relief is “Armageddon” and “going to be a hurricane of massive proportions.”
In this case, policies the mayor does have some power over are definitely to blame for some of LAUSD’s enrollment losses. High housing prices and LA’s exorbitant cost of living caused Los Angeles County’s population to decrease by 70,000 people in 2021. The mayoral candidates should detail if they’ll lower local tax burdens and reduce the city zoning regulations that drive up home prices by limiting the supply of housing available to buy and rent. Without local leaders taking these kinds of effective steps, declining enrollment and strained budgets are likely to continue at LAUSD.
Schools are also dealing with transportation challenges caused by school bus driver shortages, which have triggered longer bus rides for students that are further exacerbated by the city’s inability to adequately address its infamous traffic congestion. The new mayoral administration should prioritize reforms to improve transportation accessibility in partnership with LAUSD and the city’s public transit authority. The mayor could push for students to receive vouchers to ride Metro buses and trains to get to school, for example.
To be clear, none of these policy suggestions absolve the LAUSD school board and superintendent of their own shortcomings. Many of the major causes of LAUSD’s declining enrollment and budget problems are caused by the district’s leadership and policies. LAUSD went on a hiring spree even as it was losing hundreds of thousands of students over the last decade. The district implemented and maintained strict COVID-19 protocols that were far more restrictive than most other school districts—even after data showed students were at low risk of severe illness and after vaccines were available for teens.
To get back on track, LAUSD should speed up the removal of its aggressive COVID-19 restrictions, right-size staffing and facilities to align with the lower number of students and embrace choice programs that allow parents and students to customize parts of their educations and allow LAUSD to better compete with the abundance of online, private and charter options now attracting students.
Los Angeles’ high housing costs, taxes, and regulatory barriers are hitting low- and middle-income families especially hard. These problems are also contributing to LAUSD’s shrinking student population and worsening the district’s financial crisis. The mayoral candidates should explain how they’ll improve LAUSD and address the city’s underlying problems hurting students, families, and schools.
A version of the column previously appeared in the Daily News.