New LAUSD Board Member Proposes Holding Failing Kids Back, Like in the 1980s

LAUSD’s new board member Scott Schmerelson, a veteran middle school principal, says holding kids back gets a bad rap.
LAUSD’s new board member Scott Schmerelson, a veteran middle school principal, says holding kids back gets a bad rap.
Courtesy of Scott Schmerelson campaign

Scott Schmerelson knew he would win.

"I don't want to sound cocky," says the genial Schmerelson, the first Republican elected to the LAUSD Board of Education in decades. "I could just tell by the pulse of the people I met. I could just tell."

He beat two-term incumbent and outspoken charter-school enthusiast Tamar Galatzan, whose reform-minded backers spent twice as much as his teachers union backers, but, he says, "I'm telling you, everywhere I went people were enthusiastic."

Schmerelson is an intriguing addition to the board, having seen what unfolds inside some of the city's most challenged schools.

Long ago, he taught for 12 years at struggling Virgil Middle School in Koreatown, and more recently was principal for 10 years at Mount Vernon, now Johnnie Cochran Middle School, in Arlington Heights in South L.A. He was a counselor and assistant principal in between, adding up to 35 years in public schools.

Schmerelson sees middle school as the key to improving things, as this is the point where kids, particularly low-income students and English-language learners, start to fall behind.

"With that newfound freedom, it's easier for the kids to screw up," he says. "Middle school is where we have to catch the children before they fail. I really feel that we should hold our kids in middle school until they're ready for high school."

That's an idea that's sure to generate controversy.

"I don't want to have any 47-year-old kids in middle school," he adds. "But we need to work with them, including retention."

By "retention," he means holding kids back a grade, an old practice that would end the current use of "social promotion," where failing students are advanced to the next grade, purportedly to avoid damaging them psychologically.

Under a 1999 state law, students in California aren't supposed to advance if they aren't academically prepared. But holding students back is expensive, and it's a practice LAUSD doesn't often employ. Some say it's not particularly effective.

"Research doesn't support the idea that holding students back improves student outcomes," says Ryan Smith, executive director of Education Trust West. "We find that students tend to be disengaged when they're held back, and that teachers struggle with how to support them."

Smith would rather see greater help for students after school and in the summer.

Schmerelson's surprising victory was part of an anti-establishment, anti-incumbent wave during the May 19 L.A. municipal election, which also swept outsider David Ryu onto the Los Angeles City Council and charter school founder Ref Rodriguez onto the school board, the latter at the expense of school board incumbent and charter opponent Bennett Kayser.

Rodriguez also thinks L.A.'s middle schools need to be transformed. He calls Schmerelson's retention idea "interesting," and says now might be a good time to re-examine the effects of social promotion. His preferred focus, however, would be to provide a lot more counseling for middle school students.

"Kids' emotional needs are not being met," he says. "They're disengaging."

The school board elections were a narrow victory for the reformers over the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. In losing its biggest ally, Kayser, UTLA gained Schmerelson.

He's something of a wild card. First of all, there's his GOP party affiliation, unusual for an L.A. elected official. "A moderate Republican!" he says, laughing nervously. "But I definitely am fiscally conservative."

Schmerelson joins an already idiosyncratic and unpredictable school board. Monica Ratliff, Steve Zimmer, Richard Vladovic and George McKenna all are considered independent of both major interest groups, though they may lean one way or the other.

"I think that we are entering, in Los Angeles, a post-ideological era in education," says Ben Austin, perhaps as much in hope as belief. Austin, policy director at Students Matter, says, "LAUSD parents and voters don't particularly care all that much if their school is a charter school or district school. They don't care if they're working with reformers or the unions. They just want a good school."

"There's a feeling of newness that two new board members bring to this," agrees Rodriguez. "We have an opportunity to govern in a different way."

In Schmerelson and Rodriguez, the board gains two exceptionally friendly members, untethered to past conflicts.

"Folks were just really dissatisfied with the board in general, in terms of its oversight," Rodriguez says. One scandal seemed to encapsulate, to the voters' eyes, everything that is wrong with LAUSD: the iPad program.

Former superintendent John Deasy had proposed using $1 billion in school-bond money to give every student and teacher an iPad, thus closing the technology gap, particularly among poor students, and preparing students to take the next generation of standardized tests on computers.

The well-meaning proposal was hastily approved by the board and even more hastily implemented, leading to kids stealing devices and resulting in iPad software that wasn't ready. Stories emerged suggesting the bidding process had favored Apple and software company Pearson. The FBI launched an investigation.

The headstrong Deasy resigned under pressure in October 2014 and his successor, Ray Cortines, put the program on an indefinite hold. The dead boondoggle then was used as a bludgeon against school board incumbents.

Says board member Zimmer, "That two public servants were brought down over [the iPads] is something that's very sad. And, at some level, very wrong."

Two of the board's most stubborn members were ousted by voters on May 19. Galatzan, a prosecutor with the L.A. City Attorney's office, had been an ardent defender of Deasy, and had clashed with colleagues, including Zimmer and Ratliff. The ousted Kayser was more soft-spoken but also more ideologically rigid than Galatzan. He opposed Deasy and, toward the end, voted against every charter school that came before the board.

Schmerelson cites the iPad program as "a perfect example of taxpayers' money not being used as taxpayers wish."

On the other hand, as a former teacher, Schmerelson is sympathetic to much of the teachers union's platform.

He's against using test scores to evaluate teachers, which the district started under Deasy. And he's against requiring more than two years of classroom experience before teachers earn tenure, although the courts ruled in Vergara v. California that districts must require more than two years.

When asked by L.A. Weekly which board member he most admired, Schmerelson chose Marguerite LaMotte. The late LaMotte was a staunch teachers union ally, though she did vote for the dramatic reconstituting — removal of dozens of teachers — at failing Crenshaw High School, where only a fraction of students could pass tests in mathematics.

One of the teachers removed from his job at Crenshaw High was UTLA's current president, Alex Caputo-Pearl.

Schmerelson, however, admires LaMotte less for her pro-union ideology and more for her style, particularly her visibility in the community, which he plans to emulate.

It's likely that he'll be more moderate in debates than the often strident LaMotte. For example, Schmerelson thinks that charter schools have helped traditional public schools by forcing them to compete for students, and for the state funds that follow those students. "People at traditional public schools are realizing that they ought to get their act together," he says.

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