Part Three: Dumping the Blame Game and setting some records straight
No one likes to have their parenting choices judged by strangers. Engaged parents try to make choices that give their child the best possible opportunity in life. Ultimately, the charter vs. public school narrative or the narrative of unions vs. private corporations is irrelevant to parents’ individual decisions. But what is relevant—and what is at stake in this election—is which candidate for school board is will make choices that sustain education as a public good? Which candidate can make those decisions free of undue influence by one special interest or another? Which candidate is more accountable to us, the voters? And which candidate will advocate on behalf of all the children who don’t have involved parents with the information and resources to give them the opportunities everyone should have?
Advocacy for the challengers stresses that “there are no private for-profit charters within LAUSD.” Although technically true, that ignores all the various entities directly engaged in supporting these schools in rather business-like fashion. There are some astonishingly well-paid charter CEOs. Behind them are non-profit managers and ventures such as ExEd, which provides back-office operations, for a fee ; California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) which provides forceful advocacy for its fee-paying members ; PR, HR, food services, transportation, data analysis, testing, teacher evaluation firms specializing in charter schools; and even charter founders become investors of venture capital in start-up charters.
And behind these ventures are the billionaire investors who write checks for grants and campaigns, but who also invest in companies that stand to benefit from the privatization of education, sales of textbooks and software, and the prioritization of technology for standardized testing. Although they may have philanthropic urges, the foundations they set up are tax shelters. So they divert significant tax support immediately from public systems and funnel (relatively) minimal amounts over time to favored beneficiaries. There are additional financial rewards for charter school backers involving tax incentives and cost-cutting by avoiding union wages and extra regulations for facilities, etc., that go beyond the point of this piece.
Should all of this really matter if a parent just wants what she thinks best for her child? Well, on an individual level, perhaps not. But the collective force of individual choices has an effect on the system as a whole.
And the system shows patterns. Greater choice by adults tends to lead to greater segregation of children. Charters in Los Angeles enroll English Learners at lower rates than District schools. SWDs represent an ever-growing percentage of the decreasing total enrollment in District schools. Notably, students with severe disabilities are 3.8% of District population served, versus only 1.2% in charters . This results in a ratio of Special Education spending between LAUSD and charters of 7.6 to 1. Because the federal government has never fulfilled its commitment to fund 40% of the mandated spending on identified special education needs, this means the District must spend over $170 million from general funds to cover those mandates. Every time a student leaves the District for a charter school, s/he lowers the per-pupil revenue available to help cover the extra costs for the peers with special needs she leaves behind.
When school performance is measured one-dimensionally by test scores, charters can beat that system. Standardized tests can be taught to and non-standard students can be “counseled out” of charters for “poor fit.” Test scores don’t reflect a welcoming climate for LGBTQ students or a high level of integration of SWDs. They don’t show an ELL student’s performance in a Shakespeare play or thoughtful evaluation of a portfolio by a teacher who knows the limited resources a student had to produce it.
Much virtual ink has been spilled this election season on blogs dissecting Zimmer’s role in controversies over plans to co-locate charters on district campuses. Suffice to say, the authors of Proposition 39, which created the concept of co-location, could not have invented a more divisive policy if that had been their express goal. Every year, the District is required to try to match “available” classrooms to charters seeking space to operate. Problem being, although said classroom may not have an assigned teacher and class, it may be currently used as a resource room for physical or occupational therapy, or for art and science projects integrated into a STEAM curriculum. Charter schools don’t cause the orderly exodus of students from District schools class by class. Rather, they dribble out here and there thus there is upset every year trying to find adequate space as the law requires. And so, when charter parents snip that district parents “need to learn how to share,” it is awfully tempting to snip back that district parents are sharing: Their children’s enrollment is supporting the overall viability of the one entity that has to take every child that comes to the school gates. A public entity that can’t just choose to close down if budget projections are bleak.
No one likes to be told their choice for their child isn’t sustainable for the greater good. And so, no one is happy about the co-location struggles. It is the source of a lot of personal attacks on Zimmer. But it is hard to imagine his challengers would have fared much better in his place over the past 8 years. One of them suggests co-located schools should pay their portion of fees owed the District directly to the host school. It is interesting that he thinks relationships can be so transactional. The recommendation also ignores the fact that some of those fees go towards the considerable costs of required for the District to monitor the many charters it has authorized to operate.
Finally, one of the other critiques in the mailers you may be receiving is a particularly hallucinatory one: The claim that Zimmer is to blame for the iPad debacle. He isn’t. The iPads were Superintendent Deasy’s deal and downfall. And this is where the discussion of billionaires’ meddling in public education comes full circle.
John Deasy came to the District out of the Broad Superintendent’s program, hand-picked by Superintendent Ray Cortines to be his successor. With him came another 29 top-level district administrators, also related to the Broad Academy, whose ample salaries were paid entirely through grants from Broad, Wasserman, and Dell foundations. Deasy spoke of “urgency” when pushing an expensive IT system (MISIS) he knew from an earlier tenure at a much smaller district. He silenced critics of his 1:1 iPad initiative by calling the technology gap the civil rights issue of our time. His circle of privately funded executives assured everyone it was going to be awesome and the Board initially voted in support. This all unraveled when it turned out estimates were far lower than actual costs and when it was revealed that Deasy and Jaime Aquino, one of the Broad employees, previously a Pearson executive, had been communicating with Apple and Pearson prior to the call for bids to provide the technology and software. And so, with investigations of the iPad deal and costs of the MISIS failure mounting, Deasy resigned. The privately-paid executives departed for greener pastures in districts from Burbank to Boston, and education consultancies from LA to NYC. Blaming Zimmer for this smacks of alternative facts.
The new Superintendent, Michele King, is a product of LAUSD: student, parent, teacher, administrator. Steve Zimmer shepherded the Board of Education through a nationwide search before garnering a unanimous vote in her favor.
In a sense, this transition symbolizes everything the District and voters should bear in mind for the future: Beware of billionaires bearing gifts. There is no magic technological wand to fix the challenges of poverty. Huge leaps in test scores are neither expected nor credible. Just as we see in our own children, change can be hard and awkward, and at times almost imperceptible. Effective growth is incremental.
You BD4 voters have the chance to give Los Angeles the third term it needs to keep schools improving. You have the chance to reject the politics of fear and division, that paints our District and its students as failures without offering real solutions. By voting for Steve Zimmer, you are voting for someone who fights for all students and to sustain public education. Someone who keeps hope through hard work even in tough times.