We need to democratize our schools, not privatize them, giving
educators, parents, and students more of a say in their school’s decisions.”
– Alison Hartson
California is firmly blue. Not only did the state’s voters provide 8.75 million votes for Hillary Clinton, all statewide offices are held by Democrats along with majorities of both houses of the State Legislature and 39 of the state’s 53 seats. Both U.S. Senators are also Democrats, although this has not always translated into progressive votes.
In 2001, Dianne Feinstein voted against the majority of Democrats in approving the Bush tax cuts. The state’s senior Senator also voted “to grant President Bush the power to attack Iraq unilaterally.” She “opposed the 1996 ballot measure that legalized medical marijuana” and Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill. Feinstein has also expressed “strong support” for the California Charter School Association (CCSA) and their efforts to privatize education.
The Senator’s position on the CCSA is contradictory to her vote against the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. This vote could have been logical if she had simply relied on the fact that DeVos, like new Los Angeles Superintendent Austin Beutner, “has never worked in the classroom as a practitioner or served as a school administrator.” However, Feinstein went further by asserting that “DeVos has a long history of opposing strong oversight and accountability standards and that is deeply troubling to me.” Given these concerns, it is not clear that Feinstein looked into the legislative efforts of the representative of the charter industry before stating that she was “proud to recognize the California Charter School Association.”
In the time since Feinstein uttered those words, the CCSA has spent millions on LAUSD School Board elections so that charters can now write their own rules. The CCSA opposed SB-808, which would have ensured that charters are accountable to the school district in which they operate, and SB-1362, a bill that would ensure that charters accepted similar numbers of students with special education needs as neighboring public schools. When the LAUSD School Board declined to renew the charter for some of the Celerity charters, the CCSA attacked. The LAUSD Board’s concerns were proven correct when the FBI later raided Celerity’s offices. How exactly does the CCSA differ from Betsy DeVos?
In her appearance before the CCSA, Feinstein bragged that she has “watched public education for the 40 years that [she] has been in public life.” To gain an understanding of some of what she has learned during this period of time, I sent her campaign the following three questions related to federal education policy:
- No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act both increased reliance on standardized testing within our classrooms. Do you support the rights of parents to opt their children out of this testing? Will you support efforts to end programs which encourage teachers to teach to a test?
- Federal legislation authorizes “Congress to contribute up to 40% of the average per-pupil expenditure” for mandated special education services. Unfortunately, this funding has never materialized. Will you lead efforts to adequately fund programs and services for those with special education needs?
- Do you support the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charter schools?
Unfortunately, no response was received from Feinstein. These same questions were also sent to Kevin De Leon, but he also did not answer. I did receive a response from Justice Democrat Alison Hartson. As someone who formerly taught in a classroom for ten years, it should not be surprising that her answers were very detailed:
Parents should have the right to opt their children out of this testing, and they need more of a say in the decisions that our schools are making. I began teaching shortly after No Child Left Behind was implemented. Veteran teachers warned me about how these tests were diminishing the rigor of classroom learning and removing teacher autonomy to determine what’s best for their students. Still, I worked hard to remain open-minded about these requirements. Over the course of teaching for 10 years, I saw the pros and cons of standardized testing. Accountability is very important, but there are far better methods than the quarterly scantron tests our students currently take, such as the Montessori-style that includes the “whole child.” Currently, though, in our public schools, we don’t have time for a holistic test because our classrooms are overcrowded. Even still, the testing replaces several hours of teaching and counseling time for students due to the amount of time put into administering and taking the tests. More importantly, these standardized tests are not solving the problems our schools face because the lack of rigor is not due to lack of testing or poor teaching; it’s largely due to lack of funding and unequal funding, lack of localized decision-making for schools, and large class sizes. We are spending billions of dollars on this testing rather than on hiring more teachers, building more schools, and hiring more counselors.
- It is imperative that we put a focus on fully funding our special needs programs. One of our most misunderstood, underrepresented, and struggling group of students are those with special education needs. This group of students includes a wide-range. People tend to think of our most severely challenged students, but it also includes, for example, those with dyslexia or mild autism or hearing problems. I designed and taught an intervention program that was intended for students who have social or personal challenges (aggression, depression, etc). Often, students with special education needs were enrolled in my class, even though they weren’t supposed to be because they were undiagnosed or the school’s hands were tied with where to put them. Those kids needed different support, and they deserve it. This lack of understanding from the state and federal government leads to a lack understanding at the school level, and it is very problematic. When the community (educators, parents, students) is not fully trained and supported in regards to the varying needs of our students, bullying significantly increases on our campuses. This is dangerous for everyone. Fully funding our special education community will translate into a more compassionate, safe culture on our campuses and on our streets.
- I do support a moratorium on charter schools, but it would have to be done very carefully now that these schools exist and there are mixed results. What is most problematic with the charter school movement is that our solution-based efforts to address challenges with our public schools are misguided by misdiagnosing the problem, which means we greatly risk making the problem even worse. The charter school movement has largely advertised itself as a movement to provide competition for public schools, to provide choice for parents and students, and autonomy for communities. The problem is that the challenges faced by public schools is not that they need competition, for this implies that they are simply lazy. That is not even close to what is happening in our schools. It also cannot be about parents and students needing a choice because this leaves many families out of that option when there are not enough charter schools for parents to choose from. This is one of a few ways that charter schools can lead to segregation. The autonomy that communities have for their charter schools is indeed appealing but can be problematic when considering what this may mean for the quality of teachers, curriculum, and employee bargaining power, to name a few. In some ways, charter schools have more accountability in that they have to re-apply for their license every five years and can be shut down if they don’t meet qualifications, but studies are mixed on whether charters are helping or hurting our communities, or whether the results simply cancel each other out. Regardless of what the testing results show, my biggest concerns are segregation, pulling resources from our public schools, allowing private funding of the charters, and distracting us from being able to really focus on what our public schools truly need in order to improve. Our priority must be to provide quality public education for all children, stamping out discrimination, propaganda, and social stratification that is produced by economic disparities in our schools. Abandoning our public schools is not the answer because the problem is not the schools themselves. We must take a look at the underlying reasons for the challenges we face, such as teacher to student ratio and autonomy needed for local decision making.
She also added the following:
I was a public high school teacher for 10 years. I taught English and designed and taught an intervention program for students at risk of not graduating high school. This program was extremely successful, but the school wanted to cut it in order to save money and advance political careers. I fought very hard to save the program and was successful in doing so. There was definitely a huge lack of understanding from many educators about the importance of that program. This in large part led me to fight for ending political corruption so that our legislators can be freed from big-money interests and instead focus on what our communities truly need. We need to democratize our schools, not privatize them, giving educators, parents, and students more of a say in their school’s decisions. This does not mean that we don’t hold our schools accountable. Quite the opposite. I would like to see us take a piece of what is good from every school model and use it to inform our discussions and solutions for our public schools. But, we really need to focus on solving the problems our public schools face without abandoning them, and I am committed to that.
Of course, federal elections are about a multitude of issues and Hartson approaches many of these with a progressive viewpoint. As the National Director of Wolf-PAC, she has helped lead the effort to end corporate financing of our elections. She supports a Medicare-for-All Single-Payer program and an end to corporate welfare. It has been argued that her hard-hitting ad on Feinstein’s position on marijuana pushed the Senator to the left on the issue.
Under California’s jungle primary system the two top vote-getters will compete in November’s general election. Feinstein is all but guaranteed to secure one of those spots. In one of the bluest states in the country, an actual progressive deserves the other.
Carl Petersen is a parent and special education advocate, elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, he was endorsed by Network for Public Education (NPE) Action and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a “strong supporter of public schools.” His past blogs can be found at www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.