Credit: John Joanino/Advancement Project California
Former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is interviewed by EdSource's Louis Freedberg

The transcript below is from a presentation by four leading gubernatorial candidates at Advancement Project California’s Birth to Five Water Cooler conference in Sacramento. The discussion, which took place on Oct. 3, 2017, was moderated by EdSource Executive Director Louis Freedberg. Each candidate made remarks for five minutes, followed by questions.

This segment features California gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles and Speaker of the state Assembly. This transcript has been edited for clarity and some explanations have been added in parentheses. The full presentation is available on YouTube

I grew up in a home with domestic violence and alcoholism — a home of poverty. But I had a great mom, and I’ve always said it was a Catholic school that gave me a foundation, but a public school that gave me a second shot.

But they didn’t set high standards at the school that I went to. They put me in shop classes and basic reading and math classes. I dropped out of that school.

Thanks to my mom and a great teacher, Herman Katz, I came back and graduated. I went to East LA College. And then, because we had an affirmative-action program that gave me a shot, I went to UCLA. I know I’m one of the fortunate ones, and my entire life in public service has been to make sure that there are more people who are fortunate, to open up the doors of opportunity, the doors that I’ve been able to pass through.

I’ve said many times, when you look at what’s going on in California today, that this is the sixth-largest economy in the world. Our economy was growing faster than the national average and faster than Texas and Florida combined. We just weren’t growing together. The state with one of the highest poverty rates in the Western world. That’s a distinction that I think everyone has to really think long and hard about.

I’m running for governor because I understand that we could do better. I’m running for governor because I understand that, in order to grow our economy, in order to create more middle-class jobs, we’re going to have to educate more of our kids.

The role of the first is not to bang on your chest and say how great I am. The role of the first is to open up the door for the rest. I know what the faces of those kids who don’t have early childcare or preschool, what they look like. I know what their economic status is. Disproportionately they’re poor. Disproportionately they’re of color. We’ll be a million and a half down in the number of college graduates we need by 2030, a million down in the number of people with specialized skills. It starts at the beginning.

I have said wherever I’ve gone, and as mayor and as Speaker (of the Assembly), and before that, my entire life and when I worked for the teachers’ union, that education is the path to opportunity, the path to success. But it starts in the beginning.

I don’t have to tell you that when a young kid starting in the womb hears classical music, hears words repeated, has a vocabulary from a very young age, by the time they start kindergarten they have a vocabulary of two million more words than someone who didn’t have that opportunity.

The next governor is going to have to focus on the notion that preschool and childcare is a right, not a privilege. The only issue is how we pay for it. I believe we’ve got to grow the economy to do that. I believe that we’ve got to make priorities in a budget.

I was Speaker of the Assembly and mayor of the largest city in this state, a city that is very much like what the state looks like: rich and poor, a city where 67 percent of the population comes from Asia, Africa and Latin America, a city that had a broken school system. When I became mayor, it had a 44-percent graduation rate. One out of three schools were failing. By the time I left, one out of 10 schools was failing, and a 72-percent graduation rate. Now it’s 77 percent.

But that’s not good enough. And the way to improve K-12 and more integration in our colleges is to start with early childcare.

I think the best way to look at what someone (who is running for governor) is going to do is to see what they’ve done. When I was speaker, I was a progressive who fought for poor kids. I was the first guy who saw that we were passing state school bonds and the urban core was voting for them, and then all these state bonds were building schools in the suburbs and in places where we didn’t live.

I changed that. Every bond since then was changed to reflect that. I said it can’t just be new schools. We’ve got to rebuild and modernize the schools in the poor neighborhoods. I was the guy that did that.

When I was mayor, I stood up for the notion that Watts was worth it. I spent more time in Watts and South LA, on the East Side and the places that didn’t have a mayor. I’m spending time in the Inland Empire, in the Central Valley, with three of the top five cities with the highest poverty rate.

If we’re going to grow, we’ve got to grow together. We’ve got to invest in one another and it starts with early childcare and preschool.

Q&A with Louis Freedberg

Freedberg: The current governor has said we just don’t have the money to expand preschool it to all kids. Where would you stand as governor on that issue?

Villaraigosa: We do have the money. We’ve just got to make universal preschool a priority, starting, obviously, kids in poverty. I’m committed to it.

When I was Speaker of the Assembly, I said many times that the budget is a reflection of your values. It’s a values document in many ways, and I think it is critical that we focus on growing together, and it starts with universal preschool.

Freedberg: Where are the funds going to come from? Are you willing to go to the voters to ask for increased taxes? Or where do you see the funding for not only preschool, but for early child care, in general?

Villaraigosa: I’ve supported raising taxes when appropriate. I’m certainly willing to do that. I think we have a broken tax system currently. As we all know, Prop 13 is broken. I didn’t vote for it in 1978. I’ve spoken out against it my entire life in public service, as recently as a few months ago.

When it was passed, commercial was paying 60 percent of the freight. Homeowners were paying 40 percent. Today, it’s the inverse. You could sell property again and again and again, and not pay for it through REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts). The upper-income tax is broken, as well, though. A 3-percent cut in capital gains is a 20-percent cut to the budget.

I think some 30-some-odd states have a service tax, and we don’t, and it’s the fastest-growing part of the economy. So I would be willing to raise taxes if necessary.

I’d also be willing to cut other programs where necessary, because I intend to be the governor that does implement universal preschool, and starts the transition in the first year, not the fourth.

Freedberg: Do you think it’s time to go back to the voters around Prop 13, and deal with the commercial side of the equation?

Villaraigosa: I’d be willing to do that. But I believe in the Legislature, and its responsibility. I think the Legislature should do that. I’m not a big fan of initiatives, frankly. And I think with the two-thirds that we (Democrats) have in the Legislature, there’s going to be a willingness to address not only Prop 13 but also the other areas of a broken tax system. When you look at the two bipartisan commissions that have looked at our tax system, they said it’s broken all across the board. I would be willing to do that through the Legislature, and if necessary, by initiative. But I think the Legislature is up to the task, particularly now that we have a two-thirds majority in both houses.

Freedberg: There’s now increasing focus and concern about the very early years — zero-to-three — the issue of infant care, toddler care, which is even less accessible to parents than preschool. What would you do as governor to deal with that issue?

Villaraigosa: I do believe that society ought to provide it, starting with people who live in poverty. Almost every Western industrialized nation has some form of early childcare. We ought to join the club. When you look at my record, and I think it’s important to do that, you see the record of a guy who was always pushing the envelope. I’m the author of the assault weapons ban in 1999. I’ve been doing this my entire life. So, yes, I do believe that the state has a responsibility to provide that kind of care, and we’re going to start with the people that need it the most, and go forward.

Freedberg: Childcare workers are terribly underpaid. The state has made some movement to try to get some more funds to those workers. What would you do as governor to address that issue?

Villaraigosa: I think we’ve got to build on that. I do think they’re underpaid, and if we want the best and the brightest, we’ve got to pay them more, and we’ve also got to train them more. And I’m committed to doing that, because I think training is a key issue for early childcare, for preschool, but also K-12. We don’t invest enough in our teachers, and I want to make a more significant investment in the people that are actually caring for and teaching our kids.

Freedberg: K-12: There have been a lot of reforms that are in play right now, including the Local Control Funding Formula and the Common Core. Do you think we’re on the right track when it comes to K-12? Should we stay the course with the reforms?

Villaraigosa: Well, if you’re speaking to those two reforms, I support them both. I think we need to build on them. But are we on the right track? I think we need to do a better job. We’re graduating about 80 percent of our kids. For Latinos and African-Americans and kids in poverty, it’s closer to 70 percent.

About 13 percent of them are going to four-year colleges. We’ve got a skills gap of a million (jobs without workers to fill them) by 2030. This state won’t thrive, nor survive, with those kinds of numbers. So I think we need to do a better job of that, of what we’re doing today. I think we need to set higher standards.

I mentioned that it was a public school that gave me a second chance, which is why I believe in public schools. But they put me in shop classes and basic reading classes, because that’s what they did to people like me back then. I want to set higher standards.

When I left that high school in 1971, it had a 25-percent graduation rate. When I got elected in 2005, it had a 36-percent graduation rate. I took over that school, by the way. It now has an 84-percent graduation rate. I think we’re going to be close to 87 in a few days when the numbers come out. But we’re at 84 today.

We’ve got to do a better job. We’ve got to push ourselves — all of us. And it’s going to start with the governor. This will be a governor who will make education an absolute priority. You know, we’re 42d or 44th in per-pupil spending. We’re dead last in technology and librarians — in virtually everything. We’ve got to spend more and invest more. But we’ve also got to do more with the money we’ve got. I’m a big believer in that, and I think that we’re going to have to convince people that we’ve got to invest in the next generation of Californians so that we can grow together, in a better way, than we have in the past.

Freedberg: Can I just drill down a little bit on Local Control Funding Formula, which has been one of the signature innovations of this governorship? Is that going to continue under the next governor?

Villaraigosa: It’s going to continue. We’re going to build on it. I think we need to do more. My son had a mom with a master degree in education, a teacher, and a father who was the most powerful guy in town. I came home one day. I was speaker at the time, and he’s listening to classical music, and I said, “What are you listening to — Bach?” And he said, “No. I’m listening to Handel. But I could see why you confused them, Dad.”

I didn’t have any of that. That’s why he got to Princeton, and I didn’t. The fact is kids like me — who grew up the way I did — those kids need more than my kid does. We’re going to have to build on what we’ve done with the Local Control Funding Formula, to make sure that those kids have the resources that they need so that they can compete with kids who grew up in more affluent homes.

Freedberg: There’s a concern in some quarters that there are too many charter schools. Do you think there should be any kinds of limits or controls on charter schools, particularly in districts where there are already a lot?

Villaraigosa: I wouldn’t put an across-the-board prohibition on charter schools. I do support quality schools, both quality charters, and quality traditional public schools. And I want to give parents choices. My kids, and, from looking around the room, many of your kids get a broad range of choices. Parents and children who live in poverty, and in school districts or neighborhoods where schools have been failing them for generations, ought to be able to have those choices, as well. So I wouldn’t put a blanket prohibition (on charter schools). I certainly don’t support for-profit charters. And I do think that everybody should be held accountable, and that would include them, as well.

Freedberg: Are you suggesting more accountability for charter schools?

Villaraigosa: Yes. I would look at more accountability. I know there’s some self-dealing in a few charters. You ought to have the same conflict of interest rules that everybody else has. You shouldn’t be able to self-deal.

Freedberg: There are some concerns amongst advocates and others that maybe Sacramento has to be even more prescriptive that is, there’s not enough accountability built into the current Local Control and Accountability plans. Do you think we have the balance right?

Villaraigosa: No. But I do believe in local control. I also believe that there needs to be a standard threshold of accountability. So that’s a balance that you’re going to have to strike. When I’m governor, obviously, we’ll look at working with all the stakeholders to figure out where that balance is.

Where I’m going to side is with the kids, with the notion that these kids deserve the same shot that my kids got. I feel strongly about that. From time to time, that has gotten me into conflicts with some. But I feel strongly we’ve got to stand up for these kids.

Question from Shelly Spiegel-Coleman from Californians Together: Last November, we passed Proposition 58 with 73.5 percent of the electorate saying “yes” to multilingual programs. What is your vision is for English learners and dual-language learners?

Villaraigosa: I supported it. I was one of the few people to take on Ron Unz back then (when he promoted passage of Prop. 227). My ex-wife was a bilingual teacher. I understood that English-language learners and black boys are the most impacted in our public-school system, and they need more support. The science is with bilingual teaching, and I support it. My kids are fairly bilingual as a result of it.

Freedberg: As governor, do you see an opportunity to increase significantly where California stands in who much it spends on children?

Villaraigosa: I do. And I’ll tell you how we do that. We’ve got to focus on growing this economy. The next governor has got to make growing the economy, and, particularly, growing middle-class jobs, and absolute priority. I think we also need to address the fact that it’s very difficult to create jobs in this state, and particularly for small businesses to thrive. So I want to be supportive of that so that we can generate the revenues. I want to be the education governor that’s focused on early infant and childcare, preschool and K-12, and addresses the college-affordability issue. That’s going to take investment.

If I have a bias, I want to do that first and foremost for the kids that without that funding won’t have a shot. So I do think it’s possible. And if I have a priority, that is it. With your help, I hope to hit those funding levels and that kind of excellence.

View the full presentation on YouTube. 

Learn more about Antonio Villaraigosa on his website. 

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