Photo gallery: L.A. mayoral candidates at education summit
The five candidates running to succeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa each vowed Wednesday to continue his commitment to public education, along with his strong support of LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy and vision for reform.
The 50-minute debate was part of an education summit hosted by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, and was the first forum dedicated specifically to education.
Like the hotly contested school board race that's also on Tuesday's ballot, the debate at the Convention Center centered on the ideological fight between reformers and organized labor over the best way to improve LA's schools.
The candidates quibbled slightly over their education strategies, but were unanimous in their support of Deasy, praising his efforts to keep kids in school and prepare them for college or jobs.
And each candidate criticized United Teachers Los Angeles, the 40,000-member union that is fighting to maintain the status quo.
Even City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who was endorsed by UTLA, said he took issue with some of the union's key stands, including its opposition to the parent-trigger law and performance-based pay.
"This is about collaboration, not characterization," Garcetti said. "I have deep respect for the union, but for accountability as well."
At the same time, he wants to collaborate with Deasy, with joint-use programs for city and district facilities. He also envisions creating science and technology programs within the district that would feed the demands for a skilled workforce in Southern California.
"If we don't close the racial, income and geographic gap, it's the equivalent of never getting out of the recession," he said. "I want to work with the superintendent and the community and the business community to ensure that schools are at the center of the community once again."
City Councilwoman Jan Perry said LAUSD has improved since Deasy took over two years ago, with new schools and greater parental participation in her South LA district.
She was pointed in her criticism of UTLA - "No organization or government structure should be immune to change," she said - and said she'd lobby for new revenue coming to LAUSD to be spent on science and tech programs and not on across-the-board raises for teachers.
"Education is a civil rights issue and a pathway out of poverty," said Perry, who wants to focus on helping middle school students make the transition to high school so they'll have the skills to earn their diploma.
Controller Wendy Greuel personalized her comments with anecdotes about her son, who attends a charter school in the San Fernando Valley, as she spoke of her support for training effective educators, engaging parents and holding leaders accountable for their actions.
"The health of the city depends more on the education system than anything we can talk about," she said. "The most important thing is what's happening in the classroom.
Former tech executive Emanuel Pleitez promised to cut the district's dropout rate in half, suggesting ways to leverage developing technology to keep kids in school and expand adult-ed programs for their parents.
"Education is the key to the foundation of a (vital) economy - a society where everyone has the opportunity to be successful," Pleitez said.
Kevin James, the lone Republican in the race, said Los Angeles needs good schools to attract and retain businesses that will keep the economy humming.
"How can we convince existing business to stay in the city and new business to come in when we don't have a public school system that employees are comfortable putting their kids into?" he said. "Until we solve that problem, we won't solve the jobs, budget, infrastructure, or public safety crisis."
There was overwhelming support in the room for the reform agenda - not surprising, since the event was sponsored by the United Way, a Deasy ally, and heavily attended by groups that support his efforts to improve teacher effectiveness.
Prior to the forum, philanthropists Eli Broad and Casey Wasserman chatted with Deasy and board president Monica Garcia about efforts to raise student achievement.
And after the debate, Villaraigosa was joined by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Newark Mayor Cory Booker to discuss their efforts to improve public schools.
"We desperately need leaders with the courage to stand up and tell the truth: We are failing our children," Booker said.