How low voter turnout impacts LAUSD schools

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Voters in east Los Angeles, the west San Fernando Valley and harbor areas will cast ballots next Tuesday to select their Los Angeles Unified school board members –  that is, if voters show up.

Past history shows many won't. Over the last 50 years, local election turnout plummeted from a about 50 percent to less than 10 percent of eligible voters. 

Without a mayor's race on the ticket, this month's school board runoff for three of seven members may set a new record low. But, as advocates point out, the classroom needs of the district's students are no less urgent and the decisions facing the school board no less vital than 50 years ago.

The incoming school board faces an especially heavy agenda: members will select the next superintendent of the country's second largest school district and decide on a $7.3 billion budget – an amount rivaling Nevada's state budget.

When few people show up at the polls, people are putting special interest groups in charge, said Antonio Gonzalez, the president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

"The only people that participate are the most self-interested, vested constituencies," Gonzalez said at the group's local headquarters in Lincoln Heights.

Government 101

The next generation of Los Angeles voters, U.S.-born children of immigrants among them, may not be so inclined to forfeit their voting rights.

At North Hollywood High School, seniors in an Advanced Placement class, equivalent to a Government 101 college course, are filling out voter registration forms. 

"If you are 18 by May 19th, you can vote in that election, but you have to meet the deadline,” Mynor Godoy, education program officer at United Way of Greater Los Angeles, told the students.

Last summer, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 1817 allowing voter registration in high schools. Godoy is part of United Way’s citywide initiative to use that entree into the schools to boost turnout.

Mynor Godoy, education program officer for United Way, explains the voter registration form to students at North Hollywood High School. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

Critics of United Way point to its close ties with self-described education reform school board candidates who champion the growth of charter schools. But organizers of United Way's voter drive said they are strictly nonpartisan. 

Godoy gave the high school students an energetic tutorial on the tricky voter registration form and reminded them not to forget their signature.

"Last [election] cycle, there were more than 33,000 forms that were not accepted solely because folks forgot to sign at the bottom," he said.

When turnout is low, each vote carries with it more impact, a fact well known to labor unions and special interest groups that can get supporters out to the polls.

For Los Angeles Unified's school board elections, those vested interests include the United Teachers Los Angeles and the California Charter Schools Association Advocates.

The board is ideologically split between the two groups, which means this election could tip control of the board toward one or the other alliance.

So far, UTLA and CCSAA have spent $3 million in this year's board elections. The board has opened more than 200 charter schools over the years. Board members also support a 10 percent raise for teachers over two years and approved a $1 billion a year healthcare package for district employees.

Given the political power of the pro-charter and labor groups, other issues before the board can get relegated to the back burner. 

North Hollywood high school senior Sienna Holmes' priority is increasing arts funding. The board promised to provide all students with access to music, drama and visual arts instruction, but the initiative sat dormant for more than two years.

"I think that’s what needs to change," Holmes said in class, voter registration forms spread out around the room. "Because we have great teachers and a great program, but it’s not getting the support it needs to really blossom."

Turning up turnout

Students hope to wield more influence over board members this time around. With the help of voter drives, 3,000 of them registered ahead of the May 4th deadline. 

North Hollywood High School senior Emily Cisneros spent her lunch talking to her friends about the election and convincing them to sign up.

“Melissa!" Cisneros shouted across the quad. "Quick question: Are you registered to vote?”

Working on one future voter at a time, she walked over and made her case.

“Young kids are not airheads," she said, as she hands out LA Youth Vote pins. "They actually care about stuff."

Senior Emily Cisneros, left, turned 18 in March and immediately registered to vote. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

Once elected, the new school board faces a major challenge: how to turn California' growing investment in public schools, following years of budget cuts, into better education outcomes.

With an improving economy, LAUSD and other school districts are seeing more funding for foster youth, English learners and low-income students.

Some researchers who track school financing said it's difficult to tell if school boards are using the extra money to plug gaps left by the recession or seeding new initiatives targeting high-need children.

Cisneros hopes some of those resources will eventually trickle down to struggling students. 

"What I would like – more counselors and more programs," Cisneros said. "Not just for the smarter kids or the honors kids, but also the lower [achieving] kids."

Fifteen miles southwest of North Hollywood, Gonzalez is organizing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project's latest brainchild – a votería. The campaign is a play on la lotería, the Spanish word for lottery. It offers a shot at a $25,000 cash prize to an east Los Angeles voter casting a ballot in one of the school board races.

The lottery targets Latinos in District 5, where a Latino candidate, Ref Rodriguez, is trying to unseat the white incumbent, Bennett Kayser.

Gonzalez said SVREP received a donation for the initiative, but he declined to say who pledged the cash. He insists the effort is meant only to give voters an incentive to participate in community decision-making.

 "You can't even say you are a democracy at 10 percent," said Gonzalez, referring to the low turnout in elections. "It's not a democracy."

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