By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
After LaMotte spoke, members of the self-described Committee for Educational Justice and Equality for African-American Students took turns dressing down the gathered bureaucrats. Brewer didn’t exactly stand up to them: He promised that things would change. But the crowd wasn’t placated. People sarcastically yelled, “Yeah, right!” One woman called out, with venom, “When are you going to do that? Today? Or tomorrow?”
Owen Knox, a retired LAUSD administrator who leads the justice committee — one of many race- or ethnically-oriented groups — complains, “The superintendent hasn’t put forward any plan for African-American students. I would’ve thought that out of all his plans, one of them would have considered African-American students.”
At a subsequent meeting, the board adopted LaMotte’s resolution, which orders the superintendent to devise yet another plan, and sticks a divisive race issue on Brewer’s desk. Not to be outdone, Latino groups are demanding changes specific to them — and their politicking could be more potent. In Los Angeles, 250,575 Spanish-speaking kids are “English-language learners” who lack basic English skills, which makes LAUSD arguably the largest teacher of English in the nation, if not the world. (By comparison, in New York, the nation’s biggest school district by far, just 95,000 Spanish-speaking children attend school not knowing English.)
One special-interest group, Families in Schools, wants changes in the way Latino children are dealt with. Its president, Maria Casillas, led the failed five-year effort known as the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, in which the cash-rich Annenberg Foundation poured $53 million into Los Angeles–area schools — to zero effect. Casillas, who is close to board members Garcia and Aguilar, says her group is simply seeking a better foundation and earlier support for kids learning English. She says Brewer “didn’t understand this at first, but I don’t fault him.”
In fact, the district has poured enormous sums into “structured” English immersion, English as a Second Language, and other English-learner programs since dumping the pricey, Spanish-heavy “bilingual” programs — and English learning has been climbing ever since, even among poor, illegal-immigrant children. But since July 10, when the board gave Brewer a long list of official deadlines for achieving various reforms, Garcia and Aguilar have been pressing him to make changes in the way the district approaches its English learners’ curriculum, including “culturally responsive pedagogy.”
District insiders who fear being tagged as racists warn that these efforts constitute an ethnically coded push for a separate curriculum for Spanish-speaking students. All of these diverging demands — from safer schools for middle-class students in the Valley to separate educational approaches for lower-income black and Latino children — inevitably start a clash over funding. Columbia University’s Henig says the board’s heavy focus on English learners, driven by Garcia and Aguilar, may foster resentment among blacks and others. “Not only is [English learning] not responsive to the needs of the African-American community,” the professor explains, but “it becomes a battle over priorities.”
Brewer downplays issues of race and class, insisting, despite a clear spike in ethnic lobbying before the board, that, “We’ve stabilized that problem to a large extent.” He believes “promoting common things like music and sports but also language” can help, and touts the recent hiring of four Mandarin Chinese instructors — a tiny blip among 45,000 teachers — calling it “another major accomplishment” of his first year. And, he promises, “This is just the beginning... We’re going to expand Mandarin Chinese to just about every school by 2020.”
The problem lies in what he’s doing about the roughly 10,000 L. A. Unified teenagers expected to fail next year’s California high school exit exam. Even though it is widely accepted that Brewer was somewhat of a racial hire by the previous school board — a charismatic black man who could neutralize his Latino rival Villaraigosa — Henig says that bad news like exit exam failure rates could leave him susceptible to overthrow “because he doesn’t have a local constituency. He’s an outsider.”
With all the troubles Brewer faces, some are wondering who’s advising him. While Brewer himself cites Crew, Ackerman, Chicago superintendent Arne Duncan and San Diego superintendent Carl Cohn — a widely admired black superintendent who improved the deeply troubled Long Beach schools not far from L.A. — he doesn’t seem to be listening to them.
Brewer says two longtime educators in his family — his wife, Richardene “Deanie” Brewer, and sister-in-law, Julie Williams — are his “main confidantes.” He did not cite to the Weekly anyone within the district, despite having several proven senior staff members at his disposal.
Brewer does appear to be listening to political consultants: When he decided to pay $15,000 a month to Michael Bustamante, a longtime Democratic consultant best known as the guy who advised Governor Gray Davis during the disastrous electricity crisis, it was clearly “for strategic purposes,” says Scott Schmidt, president of RSC Partners, a media-crisis communications firm.
An image consultant — which is how political operative Bustamante bills himself — is supposed to create a “narrative” over time, “almost like a political campaign” for Brewer, Schmidt explains. Bustamante’s close ties to Democrats in Sacramento are a prime reason he was hired, Schmidt surmises, noting that, “Nothing is ever a coincidence... The district needs to show to Sacramento and the city of Los Angeles that it has strong leadership.”