They’re heading into the home stretch in the campaign for the District 1 seat with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The seven candidates, Genethia Hudley-Hayes, Alex Johnson, Rachel Johnson, Omarosa Manigault, Hattie McFrazier, George McKenna and Sherlett Hendy Newbill fielded wide-ranging questions Tuesday evening at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park before a crowd of 200 or so District 1 stakeholders. The special election will be held on June 3 to replace the late Marguerite LaMotte.

Co-hosted by the UCLA School of Government and Community Relations and LAUP (dedicated to universal preschool in Los Angeles), the debate this time focused primarily on Common Core standards, fiscal management, preschool education and instructional accountability. Each hopeful said they were running to heighten District 1 student achievement which lags far behind any of the other four district regions.

The race includes veteran educators, as well as newcomers, each of which said District 1 needs to “raise graduation rates,” “heighten student achievement,” “focus more” on children, foster “student motivation,” “bring needed change” and eliminate the disadvantages that are “…similar to those of the Jim Crow South.”

Alex Johnson said the Common Core standards could succeed more if there were more emphasis on professional development among teachers; Rachel Johnson (no relation) said the standards must be linked to a “mastery” by teachers of subject matter. While Manigualt demands better teacher training and McFrazier said instructors are not receiving correct professional development, McKenna noted that instructional knowledge must be commensurate with Common Core standards. A “smart balance” test must be linked to Common Core, said Hudley-Hayes; Newbill believes too many new teachers are being recruited without proper training.

Practically all of the candidates support classroom technology, but not as far as providing Kindergarten children with iPads. “You don’t want to substitute technology for a good teacher,” McKenna said, while Newbill asked can technology improve District 1 schools that “aren’t retrofitted?…aren’t safe?” Alex Johnson wanted to know what the students are “actually doing” with the new technology and agreed with McKenna that while attempting to bridge the “digital divide” in South Los Angeles is important, “…it still does not substitute for a good teacher.”

How can you get more funding to District 1? There are more students—and lately more new campuses—but the region is often the last to receive funds/resources to help produce a quality education for traditionally undeserved children. Manigault said the winning candidate should look more closely at each school so that “…kids get every cent needed,” while McFrazier stressed that the “needs are different” for each school, particularly those that have a high percentage of ESL (English as a Second Language) pupils. “Some of these schools may need a nurse, others a counselor,” she explained. McKenna believes employees can play an important role in garnering funds. “But we must be strategic in allocating funds,” he said. “The District 1 representative must be unapologetic in requesting more funding.” Newbill said any money must “touch kids” first; Alex Johnson supports the so-called “Needs Index” stating there must be a “culture change” in District 1.

“A safe environment can be fostered at school provided teachers and support staff make kids want to come to school,” said Rachel Johnson. McKenna believes educators can “teach kids to care for one another,” and both Newbill and McFrazier contend that methods such as Neighborhood Watch, school police, the Safe Passages program as well as neighborhood councils and faith-based efforts can go a long way in reducing violence to and from campus. “If school is part of the ‘safety net’ for kids, crime/safety issues can be better addressed,” said Hudley-Hayes. Crime reduction methods such as mental health screenings, gang intervention and anti-bullying efforts can “help greatly” in reducing crime so kids can have a “safe school day,” said Alex Johnson.

Early childhood education brought out the most passionate responses. “This is always an essential part of education, but educating the child without educating the parent is only half the equation,” McKenna said. Newbill wants to make this early learning a “priority” that can’t be put off because, “…such basic skills if not mastered by high school” can only encourage a student to drop out of school. “There’s little quality preschool programs in District 1,” Hudley-Hayes said. She demanded that such programs “be returned immediately.” Alex Johnson believes early childhood education is “essential,” noting that the return on the original investment is “tremendous.” As for Rachel Johnson, Manigault and McFrazier, each said early childhood education—particularly Head Start and First 5 LA—help increase the rate of high school graduation and is a foundation for social, emotional and academic progress among District 1 students.

Firing a bad teacher can sometimes take up to two years. Each candidate lambasted the so-called “teacher jail” that places an ineffective instructor in limbo for 40 hours per week (with pay) until a decision is made. “Principals need to get into class more and observe their teachers,” offered Hudley-Hayes. Alex Johnson believes “streamlining” the dismissal process can make it more cost effective; “professional development” can help struggling teachers, according to Rachel Johnson, while Manigault said “teacher jail” is a failed process that “needs to be eliminated.” McFrazier cited too many young administrators who are evaluating teachers, stating that “teachers should have more input” in the evaluation process. McKenna advocates “better teacher training,” and Newbill explained to the audience that a typical teacher gets only “a five-minute evaluation” over the school year. “Support those teachers who may require more training,” she said.