Next year, almost 40,000 children will be detached from the Los Angeles Unified School District, their 30 schools turned over to groups of teachers and a handful of charter-school organizations. But what might have been applauded as dramatic reform has instead left the school district with a new black eye.
Three of the region's best-known charter-school operators were shut out of the hard-fought and highly politicized competition to run the 18 new and 12 underperforming schools, when the seven-member LAUSD Board of Education snubbed Superintendent Ramon Cortines, rejecting key elements of his "Public School Choice" proposal.
His reform plans were quashed by politics and horse-trading, with only two members of the Board of Education — the Eastside's Yolie Flores and the San Fernando Valley's Tamar Galatzan — fully backing Cortines.
Only four schools will be turned over to experienced charter groups with solid track records in education. The other 26 schools are almost all being handed to untried teacher-led groups backed by United Teachers Los Angeles, which opposes the charter movement.
The Board of Education's majority vote was widely seen as a capitulation to the status quo. Critics questioned why the board handed an unevenly performing elementary school to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools — itself a troubled group with no track record — while turning dozens of dysfunctional schools over to teacher-led groups even though some critics see poor districtwide teaching as the root of LAUSD's education problems.
Flores, who has emerged as a surprise reformer demanding change, says the Board of Education had an "implicit agreement" to trust Cortines' recommendations and back up his push for charters — until politics took over. (Other members insist no such arrangement was made.)
Flores says the message from the political tea leaves became clear when School Board Member Steve Zimmer, representing the Westside — a charter-school skeptic who taught in LAUSD — was joined by Marguerite LaMotte of South Los Angeles, Nury Martinez of the northeast San Fernando Valley and Richard Vladovic of the Harbor area, in ousting Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools from the competition.
Those four also formed a bloc with Board President Monica Garcia against letting a charter group run two of the five small schools at the new Esteban Torres High School complex on the Eastside.
According to Flores, union leaders including Maria Elena Durazo, head of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, as well as the UTLA and trade unions, vigorously lobbied her and other board members about which group should be handed control of Barack Obama Middle School in South Los Angeles and the Esteban Torres High School complex.
After she publicly backed Cortines' shake-up plans to bring in respected charter-school reformers like Green Dot Public Schools, which has founded 18 independent high schools, the unions made a last pitch to Flores. She says they characterized the popular charter-school movement as a "privatization" of education and insisted that the concept of teacher-led "pilot schools" was just as good. Every board member, she says, came under similar pressure.
"We knew from the beginning there was a lot of push back from the unions," says Flores, who has grown increasingly independent since Villaraigosa helped to underwrite her election to the School Board in 2007.
"There were calls being made and meetings with every board member," Flores says. When she privately challenged School Board President Garcia over what was unfolding, Flores says, Garcia had a "very different viewpoint," arguing on behalf of a plan for five "pilot schools" at the Esteban Torres site to be controlled by a teacher-led group that was not supported by Cortines.
Says Flores: "I responded, 'Look at the merits, the track record of (the established charter groups') success. You just said you trust the superintendent, yet you reject his recommendations. That's inconsistent.'"
Garcia introduced the key, controversial motion that withdrew from contention Green Dot and other major charter schools backed by Cortines.
LaMotte, Martinez and Vladovic did not return calls for comment. But Garcia says she disagrees with Flores because she believes that higher graduation rates and other improvements in student achievement will arrive more quickly on the heavily Latino Eastside through the use of teacher-led academies. "The key point is that community members have fought for changing the Eastside, and teacher leaders are owning the change," she explains, calling the untested experiment in teacher-led academies "in-district" reform.
Garcia dismisses those who criticize "pilot" schools as a union scheme to fight reform, saying UTLA doesn't even fully back that relatively modest idea. She adds that charters have their place, and she did vote against the UTLA's effort to prevent the charter group ICEF Public Schools from running part of Barack Obama Middle School. She also backed two charter schools in her district.
Zimmer similarly tells the Weekly that while he was lobbied hard by UTLA and ultimately delivered much of what its president, A.J. Duffy, wanted, he also angered UTLA by supporting two small charters, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy and Para Los Niños.
Zimmer says charters should reach a high achievement bar, and he believes the pilot school plans for the Esteban Torres complex were superior. "There was a lot of pressure from UTLA not to vote for a single charter," Zimmer notes in his defense.
He says Villaraigosa and his staff also contacted him about their desire to take over Griffith-Joyner Elementary, and Zimmer decided that the Partnership should get the school so it could act as a "feeder," by sending its graduating grade-school students into nearby Markham Middle School, which the Partnership already controls.
"The unions were not happy with that, either," Zimmer adds.
Flores says that Villaraigosa, in a general conversation a few weeks ago, asked her to read his Partnership's proposal and to give it a shot. But she says she couldn't vote to transfer the Griffith-Joyner school to the mayor's nonprofit Partnership because she was backing Cortines down the line.
Describing the board's abandonment of Cortines, Flores says that adult political allegiances took precedent over charter-driven reforms aimed at helping children who are not getting the education they deserve.
"Folks on the board committed to a reform effort — and then lost sight of that," she says. "I was disappointed, I thought we lost credibility. I thought we took two steps back."
Galatzan describes what happened as inevitable: "I saw it more as the politics that goes on at the School Board, both the big-picture UTLA versus charters, and individual personalities and particular schools. That's elective politics."
But the criticism is not likely to die down, now that LAUSD has gained a reputation as one of the nation's biggest districts that still resists small steps toward reform. President Obama's education team decided on March 4 not to give any of its $4.35 billion in "Race to the Top" funds to California, where LAUSD educates one in every 10 children. Critics say California is seen in Washington, D.C., as too unwilling to change.
Steve Barr, founder and chairman emeritus of Green Dot Public Schools, called the board's decisions to shut out his group and other experienced charters "pathetic" and a "pure, adult power play."
Says Barr: "I don't know who gives 40,000 [students] to A.J. Duffy" — the UTLA chief.
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Barr, a nationally recognized figure whose charter group took control of the dysfunctional Locke Senior High School in 2008, adds, "There's such a consistent pattern when push comes to shove. The [educators] become so much more important than the parents — and the kids."
He called the seven-member LAUSD Board of Education "a horrific system where you have seven people elected by 6 percent of the people, [and] who oversee a budget that's more than the city's, and who won't make big change." (LAUSD's operating budget is about $13 billion, compared to L.A.'s budget of about $7 billion.)
Barr likened the School Board majority to "someone with a big drug or alcohol problem. Everyone knows they're a mess, but they won't bottom-out. They're in denial."
For his part, the disappointed Cortines wants to see fundamental change, saying, "If we're going to create jobs, we need a literate society."