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The Education Reformers: Why Are These People Fighting?

May 13th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

There is a strong push for change in education policy in America.
As with the nation, school reform in California is at its beginning stages and, as a consequence, it is messy. In LA, the reformers themselves have fractured into warring camps, with one camp frequently accusing members of another of everything from personal profiteering to belittling and disempowering the lower-income parents they claim to champion.

The issue of charter schools one of the biggest areas of contention. Some reformers love the possibilities that the charter movement suggests, others decry it as the privatization of public schools.

After reporting on and observing education reform in LA since 2005, I’ve drawn a few personal conclusions about some of the issues and about which of the various players are worth taking seriously. But these are, as I said, personal conclusions.

Kevin Grant at Neon Tommy has written a story about some of the squabbling that is going on between various progressive factions and he lays out the issues informatively and evenhandedly, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Kevin’s piece is just a beginning, a glimpse really,as education reform in LA alone is a topic that could easily be covered at book length.

But it is a good beginning. Below you’ll find the opening to Kevin’s story. I urge you to read the whole thing.

On his first day as a member of the California Board of Education, Ben Austin voted against a proposed charter school at Piru Elementary in Ventura County.

“I think most outside observers would consider me an easy vote in favor of a charter school,” said Austin, the executive director of LA-based school reform group Parent Revolution, after his first day in Sacramento. “But there’s nothing inherently good about a charter.”

A group of teachers at the school had petitioned to take Piru out of the control of the Fillmore Unified School District. They contended that parents and teachers could run the school more effectively than the district could. However, the board rejected the request by a 6-2 vote.

Speaking from his hotel room May 5 after what he described as a 12-hour first day, Austin said he voted against the charter proposal because the district was already making steady progress improving student performance. He wanted to make it clear that the charter model is not desirable in every case.

“We don’t support all charters,” Austin said. “It doesn’t help to have underperforming charter schools representing the charter movement.”

Austin’s star has been rising as the head of Parent Revolution, a non-profit started by charter school operator Green Dot Public Schools in 2006 as “a coalition of parents who tired of sending our kids to broken schools.”

In Los Angeles and across California, the charter school model has been promoted by leaders ranging from Schwarzenegger to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to Senator Gloria Romero.

But as Green Dot prepares to close one of its 19 Los Angeles schools, Animo Justice High School, after just four years in operation, Parent Revolution is coming under fire for failing to support parents and students at the south LA school.

At the same time, the aggressive growth of Green Dot, which made its name working to overhaul the underperforming Jefferson High School and Locke High School, appears to be slowing.

Given that Education Secretary Arne Duncan was reported to have told Green Dot’s founder Steve Bar that he had apparently “cracked the code” for reforming education, the organization’s challenges may be a matter of national significance.

You’ll find the rest here.

PS: By the way, Kevin Grant is one of the 13 grad students whom I had the privilege of teaching this past semester at Annenberg, and this story is a version of his final paper for the class. You’ll be happy to know that right this minute there are 12 other wonderfully interesting final papers, each on different topics, in my class “assignments” file. With any luck, some of those will be posted on Neon Tommy soon too.

Posted in Education, Green Dot | 2 Comments »

2 Responses

  1. Mavis Beacon Says:

    Painful. It makes me crazy to hear people claim charters are essentially private schools that aim to destroy the public school system. You can make that case effectively about vouchers but not charters. I don’t have the energy to advance the whole argument right now, but charters do not significantly weaken public schools. They do allow some self-segregation which has both costs and benefits, but that’s a much smaller problem than the evisceration of the public school system.

  2. mom of student with disabilities Says:

    Ben Austin is not a “parent advocate” in the true sense of the word. He was hired by Steve Barr, owner of Green Dot Schools, to be the “executive director of the parent organization”. It’s not grass roots, it’s funded and guided by the owner of the Charter Corporation. Now Mr. Barr has placed his point man in a legislative leadership position where decisions can be made for all Charter business interests. For that’s what it truly is – a business. It’s never been about children or the charters would take all without discrimination.

    I’ve collected enrollment data for years and presented it to LAUSD’s school board showing the absolute discrimination of students with moderate to severe disabilities in charter schools. These schools take a portion of special education funding without taking the students. Through the block grant funding mechanism, they’re allowed to keep money for special education services that they’re not providing. This leaves less for those students who are not accepted in their schools and remain in the regular public system. As a result – LAUSD has more moderate to severely disabled students enrolled in their schools with less funding to provide for their needs. We need a different funding mechanism that follows the child because many Charter business interests (California Charter Schools Association for example) have found ways to exploit that loophole in funding. CCSA has created a Joint Powers Agreement and charges charter schools $5 per ADA just to join (this on top of the regular $5 per ADA membership fee to be in the CCSA. They’re now attempting to leave LAUSD’s Special Education Service Area or SELPA (Special Education Local Planning Area) to avoid the Federal Modified Chanda Smith Consent Decree. They’ve also contracted through El Dorado Charter SELPA to “oversee” the service provision, but all El Dorado will do is assign the actual duty of providing service to the Southwest SELPA.

    This means that a local LAUSD charter school has spent $10 per ADA to be involved with CCSA for the privilege of being provided (so called) better special education services. Then El Dorado SELPA gets a cut of the special education funding for “administrative costs” and finally Southwest SELPA will get an additional cut for their actual expenses. Three hands are in the till before a child is provided with any special education service. How is this more efficient or better?

    What’s even more ridiculous is the claim that they’ll provide better service. LAUSD has an excellent Division of Special Education staff whose specialists train other SELPAs on how to provide better more efficient service. In reality, the CCSA JPA is charging more to our LAUSD charters to provide less service and making it even more difficult for parents to have contact with those who provide it.

    There is no federally and State mandated Special Education Community Advisory Committee (CAC) arrangement for these parents and many of them had not been notified that their schools would be leaving LAUSD’s SELPA. I’ve participated as a “member of the public” in many of the CCSA JPA meetings and have questioned, repeatedly why parents of students with disabilities were not informed in advance of the charter board’s decision to leave LAUSD’s SELPA. Was there a public town hall to show pro/con of each SELPA? Was there a parent discussion and vote? In whose best interest was the decision made?

    None of the parents of these children were aware of the decision and LAUSD’s Division of Special Education sent a letter out to parents when the schools (and the LAUSD Charter Office) failed to do so. The result was an outcry from the CCSA. It seems that they thought LAUSD was fighting dirty by giving parents information. It seems that they don’t want parents to know that they actually are not working in the best interest of the children, but appear to be working in the best interest of their own pocketbooks.

    The original intent of charter law was to help those in the lowest performing educational groups. Students with special needs are consistently at the very bottom of every test in every category. English Language Learners are slightly ahead of the disabled – two groups that would benefit greatly from this law, yet these are the students that charters will not take – because they’re too expensive and too difficult to teach.

    Charters are public schools taking public money and as such should be taking all students or they are violating the civil rights of these less able students. It is discrimination no matter how you try to explain it otherwise – and it should stop. Either take all kids or revoke the charters.

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