After winning a Los Angeles school board seat, Goldberg speaks about charter schools, money and what it means to fight the good fight.

By Alex Demyanenko

Photos by Bill Raden

Jackie Goldberg has spent her life fighting for students. From 1983 to 1991, she served on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s board of education, including a term as president. She later became an L.A. City Councilmember and then served three terms in the California State Assembly, where she also served as chairperson of the Assembly Education Committee. Now, nearly 30 years later, Goldberg returns to the board, having been elected to fill the District 5 seat vacated with last year’s resignation of Ref Rodriguez, the former board president who was convicted of campaign money laundering. (Goldberg will now complete a term expiring in December 2020.)

At 74, Goldberg still seems as energetic and passionate as ever. Shortly after winning the board seat, she spoke to Capital & Main about charter schools, money and what it means to fight the good fight.  The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Capital & Main: You’ve been an outspoken critic of charter schools. Now that you’ve won the election, are you prepared to battle school board members like Nick Melvoin, who have strongly supported their growth?

Jackie Goldberg: I’m ready to go to battle but it isn’t what I’d prefer to do. What I want to do is to pass Measure EE, and then we can fight about how to spend that money. I do want to have a more close fiscal control of charter schools in the district.

“Public education is dying. It is dying because it’s being financially killed.”

There are things that I want to do right away about charters, but most of the work is in Sacramento. I’ve already been up to Sacramento once on this issue, and have talked to a number of people. I do think that we need to get some reforms on charters, such as a back-filling of fixed costs to schools when they lose a child to a charter. We don’t get that now. Let’s say 10 or 11 kids leave a school, maybe even enough leave school to lose a teacher. That’s too bad, but that’s the way that goes. But you still have the principal. You still have the plant manager. You still have the school secretary. You still have a nurse, if you’re lucky. You still have a library aid or a librarian, if you’re lucky. Those are fixed costs. They don’t get reduced when children leave. And right now, that’s what’s killing us.

We didn’t ever intend for charter schools to be like regular district schools, only run privately. They were supposed to bring something new or creative. And I always use the example of this wonderful guy who runs this school in East L.A., where the children are learning Nahuatl, the Aztec language. They’re trying to keep it alive there. Well that’s something the district would never do. That’s actually an appropriate charter use. But to just have “Charter Elementary School A” do exactly what the district school is doing, I don’t understand that.

“I think this is Austin Beutner’s legacy run. I think he wants to do well, I really do.”

I think we need to have a definition change of what an empty classroom is. By far, that’s one of the biggest problems. The LAUSD schools are losing music rooms, libraries, reading labs, math labs, computer labs to charter schools because the state defines all of those as empty classrooms for some stupid, idiot reason. We have to say, “No. You don’t get to reduce what we offer our children in our schools in order to co-locate. Your co-location has to have no negative effect on the co-located school.” We’ve got to get that to the point where that has to be the truth. And that means we have to change legislation in Sacramento.

We have got to fix this or we have to go to war against them. I’d prefer the fix to the war.

Do you believe that lawmakers are ready to take on the powerful charter lobby and demand accountability?

It’s very hard for them to do so because they get so much money [from the lobby]. Somebody told me that the charter schools in the last 10 years have spent something like $900 million on elected officials. As long as that’s going on, it’s going to be very hard to make changes that work. However, I think if they get the understanding that the public is ready to kill them if they don’t change, then I think they might be willing to make some changes.

We have an LAUSD superintendent, Austin Beutner, who has no background in education. Should the school board replace him?

No, not immediately. I think he has an opportunity. He and I went to three schools together yesterday and he did all the things I asked him to do. He fixed things that needed to be fixed immediately. That’s why I picked the three schools I picked. He took it on and he said he’s going to take care of it, these things are going to get done, we’re going to make it happen.

I think this is his legacy run. I think he wants to do well, I really do. With help, we can point him in the [right] direction. But here’s my plan. My plan is the same for the three superintendents I served under last time, which is to get as many votes, hopefully seven, but at least five or six, for goals and objectives that are sustainable, that you could achieve, and that you could know when they were actually completed. We used to call them SAMs: Specific, Attainable and Measurable.

The board needs to come up with SAMs for this superintendent, to look at his contract again next May against whether or not he’s able to do the things the board are directing him to get done. And they have to be attainable. It’s not like world peace, right? You don’t say, “Well, by next year at this time every school will be at the state average.” No. That’s not a goal that’s achievable. But we have to pick ones that are achievable that move us in the correct direction and that’s what I hope to do very first. And if he can’t or won’t, then you talk about whether you need to replace him.

He told me yesterday that yes, he didn’t know much about education, but what he knew a lot about was how to make bureaucracies work. Well you know what? If he can make bureaucracies work in a district with a big bureaucracy, I’m all for that. So we’ll see.

He’s been developing a controversial plan where the school district would be broken into smaller districts, into smaller networks, almost overseen like stock portfolios.

Yeah, I’m not there. I don’t know if I could get there. It depends on how he does it and what he means to do. But it looks an awful lot like the plan in New Jersey and Chicago and Atlanta, that were used to close [public] schools and reopen them as charter schools. And if that’s what it looks like to me, I’m certainly not going to support it.

“You cannot permanently underfund public education and expect it to remain alive and well.”

If, on the other hand, it may look like that but it has protections and other changes [then that is different]. This business of saying, “We’re going to hold schools accountable” — when you underfund them and don’t support them,  from downtown particularly, is insane.

That’s not accountability. That’s a plan to destroy public education. [If]  accountability means you’re struggling and we’re going to keep upping the resources to you, now that’s a plan I could live with, yes.

Now, before and during the strike, Beutner insisted that the LAUSD has a huge financial deficit and it couldn’t afford to invest in more schools. Many observers, including those at this publication, have raised questions about the veracity of those claims. Do you think that he’s providing accurate numbers?

I don’t know. I didn’t at the time that I spoke out against it because I looked at the overview of the budget. There’s a difference between a reserve and a surplus. A reserve is the money [that’s] held aside and it’s in reserve but you have uses for it already outlined — you’re waiting for bills to come in, you’re waiting for what you’re going to need for the next school year. You have money in reserve. You have it for a rainy day in case there’s a recession.

“I do not trust the county — not because they lie, but because they always assume the worst-case scenario in their projections.”

But a surplus is money that has no designated goal yet. There was $2 billion — not in reserve, but in surplus, before the strike. That’s a lot of money. My goal would’ve been to say to him, if I had been on the board, “Put a billion aside for a rainy day, for a recession in case we get caught up in another cutback from the state — but spend a billion right now. Hire a thousand teachers for a hundred million. Do librarians, do class-size reduction. Make sure we have library aids or librarians. Make sure that we have enough teaching assistants. That we have enough nurses and psychiatric social workers, and so forth, with that other billion. Do the best you can.”

I have not looked at [LAUSD’s] numbers, but I did look at their projections and for the last 15 years — every three years they predicted disasters. It’s hard to accept what they’re saying. I do know how they hide money in a budget. I was there eight years and I saw what superintendents did to hide money. And that’s what I’m going to go look at when I first take over on Tuesday, is to begin sitting down with the budget people and taking a look at why they say we’re in trouble.

“We need to go back to the time when people moved to California because of our public education system. Now they move out because of it.”

I do not trust the county — not because they lie, but because they always assume the worst-case scenario in their projections. And the worst-case scenario for school districts in California is a recession.

I thought there was enough money to make the settlement that they made without a strike, and that that’s what they should’ve done. I think that the board majority and the superintendent completely underestimated the support that the larger Los Angeles and Southeast L.A. communities felt [for] their public schools.

What would it really take in terms of taxes or other revenue sources to get L.A. and California schools back to where they should be?

Well, we need to be able to spend $22,000 [per student annually] like New York does. So basically you’re looking at three or four sources of money. One is, you’re looking at Proposition 13 and doing a separate tax basis, [a] tax measure based on just commercial property and leave aside the residential property. That will go a long way. But that won’t move us all the way. EE will move us a long way. But there are still other things that we could do. One of the things I had a chance to do was to work with another Democrat, the most fiscally conservative Democrat, when I was in the Assembly. And we spent two years taking a very good, long look at the whole question of taxes that would not affect the middle class, or the working class or the poor. We came up with literally billions of dollars of things that we could tax.

“You can’t have a way forward for people who are currently trapped in poverty without public education being fully funded.”

I’ll just give you one example. If you taxed all of the goods coming into LAX on air freight at a nickel sales tax charge, and you also put a nickel sales tax on all private charters flights anywhere in the state, it comes to several billion dollars a year. Just that one sales tax change, you know?

There are lots of places that affect only rich people. For example, taxing business-to-business legal services. What you would do in order to make this not hit on small businesses, is that you would set a certain amount. If the amount is higher than this much per year, the amount above that amount is taxed at five percent sales tax. Okay?

What is your top priority now that you’ve been elected?

My top priority is EE and other types of funding for public education. Public education is dying. It is dying because it’s being financially killed. It has been decades since Proposition 13 — not weeks, not months, not even years–it’s been decades. You cannot permanently underfund public education and expect it to remain alive and well. [We need to take advantage of] the fact that there are two-thirds Democrats in the Senate, and two-thirds Democrats in the Assembly, and make them know that we insist that they fund public education completely like they did before Proposition 13, when I went to UC Berkeley and paid no tuition. Nothing. Zero.

We need to return to the days when this state says, “Our children are very important to our future. They are all of our future, and we’re going to invest heavily in their future.” Not just in pre-K, not just for them when they are toddlers and in childcare, but all the way through their bachelor’s degree. We need to be going back to the time when people moved to California because of our public education system. Now they move out because of it.

So it’s time to go back to the same people that have opposed this and say to them, “Your time is up.” I mean, we had a strike here, we had a strike in Oakland, we almost had a strike in Fresno, I think we’re about to have a strike in Sacramento. We’re having these strikes because people are finally saying to the public, “You may not have noticed, but over these decades since Proposition 13, we have been just systematically destroying public education.” And charter schools have been a part of it, but they haven’t been all of it. This underfunding has gone on before there were charters.

Your career has spanned decades. How do you maintain your passion? What is it that drives you?

Oh well, I started teaching when I was right out of school. It’s always been for me, the work of my life is that I believe you can’t have a democracy without quality public education. I believe that you can’t have a way forward for people who are currently trapped in poverty without public education being fully funded. We must do those things which make this society more equitable. That’s been my passion, really all of my life.