Barr is the founder of Green Dot charter schools, which—in the early 2000s—launched small charters in low income areas of LA County, where sprawling and dysfunctional LA Unified School District facilities, like Jefferson High School, were then failing catastrophically, with drop out rates through the roof, and grad rates in the toilet. Yet, at the same time, local teachers’ unions and others got in the way of anyone trying to fix them.
Enter Green Dot, begun when Barr was unsuccessful in finding a way to partner with LAUSD. and was determined to give families living in impoverished neighborhoods an educational option that acted as if their kids actually mattered.
By 2007, in a grand and risky experiment, Green Dot managed against daunting odds to seize control of a large failing high school itself, namely Alain Leroy Locke High School, located at the edge of the Watts.
Locke, with its 28 percent graduation rate and 90 percent of its students performing below basic or far below basic on standardized tests—was emblematic of the worst of the LAUSD’s institutional failures. It was also the first such “hostile takeover” in the U.S. of a public high school by a charter, and it made national news.
Amazingly, Green Dot’s small-is-better education model, with its high degree of teacher autonomy and parent involvement, actually worked. Kids who showed up at the Green Dot start-up charters on the first day of class with their reading and math abilities discouragingly far below grade level, not only stayed in school and graduated, they applied to college.
By 2009 two of Green Dot’s charters were named among the 100 best public schools in America.
That same year,Barr was profiled in the New Yorker.
Two years later still, a UCLA study showed the Locke schools to be “significantly outperforming their counterparts on a number of state test score measures, as well as in remaining in high school over time, and in taking and passing challenging courses.”
Green Dot is viewed by many as being greatly influential in stimulating—and at times forcing—reform in the Los Angeles public school landscape during a period when LAUSD’s disastrously failing inner city middle and high schools repeatedly made headlines.
In 2010, Barr left Green Dot to do education reform work elsewhere in the U.S., helping to open a Green Dot-style charter schools in New York and New Orleans
In 2012, he turned his sights back to LA with an unusual partnership with LAUSD.
Now, he has announced he is running for mayor of Los Angeles in 2017, challenging Eric Garcetti. He filed the necessary papers on Monday. “I’m in,” he posted on his Facebook page.
The LA Times’ Peter Jamison and Howard Blume have more on the story of Barr’s candidacy. Here’s a clip:
Barr, a Silver Lake resident and darling of education-reform advocates who has not previously held elected office, said he has grown impatient with what he sees as Garcetti’s passivity in the face of a worsening public education crisis. He said Garcetti is “a really nice guy” who lacks “a sense of urgency” about solving the city’s problems, foremost among them the shortcomings of the nation’s second-largest school system.
“The school district – and I’m saying this as a big fan of the school district, as a parent in the school district – in some ways is a little bit like an alcoholic who hasn’t bottomed out yet,” Barr said. “It’s getting better, but we can’t afford as a city to just let this thing linger out there, because it’s not just affecting them anymore. It’s affecting our city and it has for a long time.”
Barr’s entry into the 2017 race comes amid a historic push by local activists to expand charter schools as an answer to problems in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and is likely to revive debate around a recurrent theme in L.A. government: the relationship between LAUSD and City Hall. L.A.’s mayor, unlike those in Chicago or New York City, has no formal authority over the school district.
In taking on Garcetti, Barr faces long odds against an incumbent who has built a broad base of political support and an impressive fundraising machine – and who has made no major missteps during his first three years in office.
Jaime Regalado, an emeritus professor of political science at Cal State L.A., said he thought nothing short of a serious scandal – or perhaps an abrupt exit by Garcetti to accept an appointment in a Hillary Clinton White House – would create “any chance at all” for Barr’s success.
Others cautioned against underestimating Barr’s appeal to an unpredictable electorate in a city where public school quality still tops most polls as an issue of voter concern.
“He’s running as an outsider at a time when voters are powerfully suspicious of the political establishment, and he’s running on an issue that’s close to the hearts of most Angelenos,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “It will be an uphill fight for him, but this is something that Garcetti and his team would be smart to take very seriously.”