Sunday, October 07, 2012


By Catherine Cloutier, fellow, News21 - The USC/Annenberg School of Communications |

SCHOOL ED: The Price of Education Reform

Billions of philanthropic dollars are spent each year to assuage the budget shortfalls of the nation’s urban school districts. But the money comes tied to a strict agenda. With the Obama administration leading the charge and philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family footing the bill, America’s school districts are buying into the education reform movement... for better or for worse.

Under The Influence is the product of a team of reporters from USC Annenberg News 21 exploring the relationship between special interest funding and public policy. It was produced between January and August 2011

As part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative that brings together a dozen prominent universities, News21 aims to leverage the reporting power of the country's most advanced journalism students to shed new light on selected issues of pressing civic importance.

  • The USC Annenberg News21 team is led by Prof. Patricia Dean and Prof. Marc Cooper with the assistance of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Cohn.
  • Multimedia production has been overseen by Wendy Chapman, Director of USC Annenberg WebTech and with the assistance of Annenberg alums and working journalists John Adams and Brian Frank. Chris Guitarte and Sasha Konovalova also assisted in web production.
    Katie Orenstein is our designer.

News21 is a national initiative led by 12 leading research universities with the support of the Carnegie and Knight foundations. Our mission is to produce innovative, cutting-edge, in-depth journalism in the public interest.

A College-Ready Academy #7 student hurried to class minutes after the afternoon bell.
A College-Ready Academy #7 student hurried to class minutes after the afternoon bell.

Walter Rich’s history class at David Starr Jordan High School in South-Central Los Angeles spent the last 20 minutes of a spring school day watching Schindler's List. The classroom was dark, save for the flickering light of the projector and the bluish glow of a couple cell-phone screens in the back row.

In the highly acclaimed Steven Spielberg movie, Poland’s Jewish population packed their lives into small suitcases, loaded them onto horse-drawn carts and commenced their journey to Krakow and, ultimately, into oblivion.

In the classroom, students twirled fingers around their hair, whispered behind cupped hands or sat with eyes fixated on the black-and-white pictures before them.

“Where are they going?” one student asked, a tall African-American boy who watched the movie with his mouth slightly open.

“The Jewish ghetto,” Rich responded, instigating a barrage of questions for more details and, specifically, its relationship to Watts — the infamous ghetto in which Jordan High and its students reside.

We live in a ghetto, too, the students argued. A different kind, Rich said.

Before the conversation or the screening of Schindler’s List could progress much further, the bell rang and the students shuffled out of the classroom, onto Jordan High School’s labyrinth of a campus and, in some cases, home to the neighboring Jordan Downs housing project. 

Jordan High School’s students are well acquainted with the ravages of poverty. Images of drive-by shootings, gang-related fights and muggings in the bathrooms are fresh in their minds. For many, day-to-day survival takes precedence over any plans for graduation.

Like several of the behemoth public schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Jordan High School is what Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa often refers to as a “dropout factory.”  Only one in three of its students graduate, according to LAUSD. A mere 13 percent scored at the "proficient" level in English on the California Standards Test in 2010.

Against the backdrop of those poor rankings, then-Superintendent Ramon Cortines decided last January to “restructure” Jordan High. Starting this fall, the school will house two smaller academies: one operated by Mayor Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the other by Green Dot Public Charter Schools. While not the only time the district has requested a restructuring process, this marks the first time it has directly asked outside school operators to take over one of its schools.

“Jordan has been in Program Improvement status for the last 13 years and needs special attention,” Cortines told City News Service at the time. “The time for excuses has expired. The time for action and progress is long overdue.”

The second largest school district in the country, Los Angeles Unified has long been plagued with low test scores and graduation rates. Its Academic Performance Index (API) score of 709 (according to data provided by the California Department of Education) falls significantly short of the state average of 768. Los Angeles Unified’s API score dips to 663 for African-American students and 686 for Latino students (of which there are 335,974, a striking 75 percent of the total student population).

Schools like Jordan High hover at the lower end of that statistic. In 2008-09, its API score was 560. And it is by no means the lowest performing of LAUSD schools [link to map].

When Cortines called for “action and progress,” he may have well called for reform. Deeply seasoned in animosity toward the education reform movement, Los Angeles Unified held its traditional ground as charter schools were built around its schools, demands for merit pay for teachers were answered by corporate philanthropists and metrics-based teacher evaluation processes were published in the Los Angeles Times.  

But by early 2011, the district had thrown up the white flag. The reformers had won. And gracious in the face of defeat, Los Angeles Unified gave them Jordan High School as a venue to enact a reform agenda.

Today, 1 in 10 Los Angeles students attends a charter school, which is a nonsectarian public school that enjoys a certain level of autonomy from the school district. Los Angeles Unified has the largest number of charter schools in the country. The College-Ready Promise — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s teacher-effectiveness evaluation program — has entered test-run stages in five of the city’s high-performing charter management organizations. 

Los Angeles Board of Education President Monica Garcia conversed with new Jordan High School Principal Sherri Williams during a Day of Service at the school.

Los Angeles Board of Education President Monica Garcia conversed with new Jordan High School Principal Sherri Williams during a Day of Service at the school.>>

Reformers have weaseled their way into the city’s schools and the district’s offices. Los Angeles Unified is now led by a superintendent who graduated from the reform-minded Broad Superintendents Academy and who previously worked for education philanthropist Bill Gates. One of Superintendent John Deasy’s top administrators, a former consultant, is a graduate of the Broad Residency program. Several of Deasy’s top administrators occupy positions paid for by the Broad and Gates foundations.

With a strict agenda and a few deep-pocket benefactors, reformers are rapidly transforming public education in Los Angeles, for better or — as many education academics would argue — for worse.

The Flow of Philanthropic Money

Education philanthropists have taken particular interest in the city of Los Angeles, especially in light of its high number of charter schools and its struggling public school district. In late June, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Walton Family Foundation (link to profile), the philanthropic legacy of the late Walmart Corporation founder Sam Walton, donated roughly $12 million to charter schools and reform advocacy in the Los Angeles area. 

Microsoft magnate Bill Gates’ foundation (link to profile) chose Los Angeles as one of four cities in which to test out its teacher evaluation methods. Through the College-Ready Promise, Gates gave the city’s five major high-performing charter-school-management organizations a combined $60 million in funding for the program. 

Los Angeles–based billionaire developer Eli Broad (link to profile) has funded a number of the city’s charter schools, according to Broad Foundation communications director Erica Lepping.

“Eli Broad wants to invest in things that yield results, and the the high-performing charters have proven to be among the better ways to do that,” Lepping said.

Broad partnered with Gates and media executive Casey Wasserman (the grandson of the former studio executive Lew Wasserman) to fund some of top administrative positions in Los Angeles Unified’s central office. All of the recipients of these positions make six-figure salaries.

“I think [Supt.] John Deasy drank the Kool-Aid, so he’s going to have to ultimately do what Bill Gates or Eli Broad would want to do,” said Rudy Crew, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School for Education. “He’s using their money; they get to set the agenda.”

Crew predicts that in the next few years, the number of charter schools in the city will increase dramatically, as will the influence of these philanthropists on the day-to-day operations at LAUSD’s central offices. 

Deasy is currently working to establish a pool of philanthropic funding that Los Angeles Unified will use to replenish its arts education and health and human services budgets. Funds would also be spent on teacher leadership training and innovative projects within the district, said Matt Hill, the chief strategy officer for LAUSD.

“We’ve cut about a billion and half dollars in the last two years, and we’re anticipating maybe cutting another $600 million next year. So if we took all the money from all the foundations across the country, that wouldn’t fill our hole,” Hill noted.

The cash-strapped district’s focus, however, is advocacy in Sacramento, Hill maintained. 

But critics of the reform movement believe the mere presence of philanthropic benefactors in public education is undemocratic.

“There are no voices in the debate besides the Broads and Gates, and they have a voice because they have money, and there’s no money because we’ve cut it all elsewhere,” said Josh Cook, a faculty member of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Teacher Education Program.

‘Elected Official of the Year’ 

One of the supporters of Deasy’s proposed philanthropic fund is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who often says he supports private-public partnerships in this time of budget shortfalls and layoffs.

A longtime education reform advocate, Villaraigosa attempted to take mayoral control of Los Angeles Unified in 2006. This would have wrested control of the district from a seven-member elected board that is accountable to no higher elected official. His plan was contested and ultimately found unconstitutional on the basis that the school district includes several communities outside the borders of the City of Los Angeles. It was a bold and a controversial move by the mayor, who once was an activist member of the local teachers union.

The following year, he launched his second, much more limited campaign to run Los Angeles schools, this time a success. Under Villaraigosa, the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools now operates 22 out of the 750 schools within the district. The schools have more localized decision-making than their surrounding Los Angeles Unified schools. Since its establishment, the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools has raised $65 million in philanthropic contributions.

“The mayor talks quite frequently about the fact that there’s no one panacea, there’s no one thing that will fix our schools, there’s a lot of things that need to be done both at the local level and the state level,” said Arielle Goren, the deputy communications director for the mayor’s office. 

Villaraigosa lobbied hard to push his education platform into Los Angeles Unified’s policy discussions, openly supporting reformist school-board candidates. In the 2011 Los Angeles Board of Education elections, Villaraigosa raised $1.2 million for the Coalition for School Reform, tapping into his reserve of billionaire friends and securing a reform-minded majority on the school board.

There was no better candidate for a meaty donation than Eli Broad, who ultimately gave $150,000 for the Coalition for School Reform. A month later, when Villaraigosa hosted a forum to discuss education reform prior to his State of the City address, Broad was at the round table.

“The mayor has worked really hard to build a strong coalition of people around reform,” said Goren. “And I would say that Eli Broad is certainly part of that coalition.”

In many ways, Broad and Villaraigosa espouse similar beliefs. Both believe the current hierarchy of Los Angeles Unified is in need of restructuring. Both believe in public-private partnerships. And both believe in charter schools.

Last March, Villaraigosa was named the “Elected Official of the Year” by the California Charter School Association. Jed Wallace, the president and CEO of the charter school association, said in a press release following the award ceremony that Villaraigosa ran “an education platform that embodies true reform in public education.”

“He thinks we should stop looking at this as an antagonistic relationship and start embracing all the models that work,” said Joan Sullivan, Villaraigosa's deputy mayor of education. “We need to be open to real innovation, open to taking risks, open to change an equation that’s been flawed for decades.”

Managing Public Education

Los Angeles Unified is the size of a Fortune 500 company. It has a $7 billion annual budget, despite cuts of $1.5 billion in the past two years. It has approximately 750 facilities (schools). It has about 75,000 employees. Looking at numbers alone, it is a massive conglomerate, and reformers like Eli Broad argue it should be run like one.

Noticing a large number of inefficiencies at school district central offices across the country, Broad established two academies designed to bring private-sector management strategy to school districts. His Broad Superintendents Academy and Broad Residency program train former CEOs, military officers and financial consultants about pedagogy.

“Whereas someone who has moved up the ladder may be well intentioned and they may have been terrific as former teachers in the classroom, unfortunately, the public education system hasn’t provided adequate training in management,” said Lepping.

Lepping cited a list of almost 70 central-office-based inefficiencies, ranging from duplicate positions at the administrative level to large class sizes. 

“Most of problems can only be fixed by leadership at the top changing policies and practices,” said Lepping. “If you have multiple people playing the same role, that’s a management issue. It’s a waste of taxpayer money, and it’s not helping teachers and students.”

Broad has put his money where his mantra is, investing $4.5 million in the two management training programs in 2009 alone, according to his 990 tax form. (LINK)  He also pays the salary of some of his program’s graduates who now work for Los Angeles Unified.

Among them is Matt Hill, Deasy’s chief strategy officer and a 2006 graduate of the Broad Residency program. A former consultant for Accenture specializing in mergers, Hill discovered a love of public education while pursing an MBA at UCLA. 

“At the time, there really weren’t a lot of opportunities for someone with my background to get into K-12 education,” said Hill. “Then, I found out about the Broad Residency, which really got me on that onramp.”

College-Ready Academy #7 Principal Rosalio Medrano has worked at charter schools for his entire career as an school administrator.<< College-Ready Academy #7 Principal Rosalio Medrano has worked at charter schools for his entire career as an school administrator.

Hill completed his residency, an apprenticeship of sorts, in Oakland, California. While there, he worked in teacher/administrator relations, tapping into the extensive network of residents across the country and learning lessons during the program’s eight training seminars. He stayed at the Oakland school district for four years following his residency.

Hill then took the position of chief of staff to then-Deputy Superintendent Cortines. In the fall of 2009, he created and implemented the strategy behind Public School Choice, a district-run program that allows school-operating organizations the chance to bid for new and low-performing schools. Public School Choice was crucified by city and state teachers unions as a “school giveaway.”

In his current position, Hill oversees the district’s budget, innovation and charter-school department and data analysis. 

On the pages of the Broad Foundation’s brochure, former residents and superintendents glowingly share tales of rising test scores and decreasing deficits. But education academics, particularly those who have worked in education administration like Rudy Crew, believe the idea that a business-management model as the silver-bullet solution to the crisis in public education oversimplifies the debate.

“You actually need a bit more expertise than simply knowing how to balance budgets and/or talk the talk about organizational design,” said Crew, a former chancellor of New York City schools, among several school leadership roles. “I think of that as management. I don’t think of that as leadership.”

“[The Broad Leadership Academy] is more of a band-aid of sorts, but I don’t discount the fact that it has a lot of political footing, and it has a lot of ideological leanings that are being taught in the context of their curriculum,” Crew added.

The academies are vehicles for Broad’s reform agenda, to be dispersed among hundreds of aspiring administrators and installed in school districts across the country. The Broad Residency’s graduates, for example, have managed charter-school organizations' growth from three to 500 employees and developed nearly $50 million of real estate for the construction of charter schools, according to its brochure.

Charter Schools: A Flourishing Business in Los Angeles

In late March 2010, the 400 students of Animo Justice High School in South-Central Los Angeles staged a sit-in in the hallways of their school. Four years after Animo Justice opened as part of a cluster of Green Dot–operated charter schools in the Jefferson High School area, the nationally renowned charter operator had decided to close the school's doors.

Josh Cook, a former Animo Justice teacher who now works as a faculty adviser in the Teacher Education Program at UCLA, was struck by the resilience of his students in their stand for their school.

“These students [went] out of their way to demonstrate leadership, to demonstrate that they understand society, that they understand how they are going to be seen and go out of their way to make sure they are seen in a positive way,” he said.

Students gather around a laptop at College Ready Academy #7 in South Central Los Angeles. Charter schools often use philanthropic grants to purchase laptop carts and desktop computers. << Students gather around a laptop at College Ready Academy #7 in South Central Los Angeles. Charter schools often use philanthropic grants to purchase laptop carts and desktop computers.

On the third day of the sit-in, the protest moved from the school hallways to the streets, ultimately ending in a march to the Green Dot headquarters. 

Eduardo Campos, the senior class president of Animo Justice, was at the helm of the march. 

“We built the school from scratch,” Campos told the Los Angeles Times.  “We chose the name of the school and the colors. And now all that is being taken away.”

Yet, Green Dot remained steadfast in their decision.

“Green Dot knew they were coming,” said Cook. “They received them, they bought them all pizza, and then told them, ‘Sorry, we’re still closing your school.’ ”

Animo Justice closed in June 2010, its 400 students were dispersed among the other Green Dot schools in the Jefferson area, and Cook went on to graduate from UCLA. He wrote his master’s thesis on the events at Animo Justice.

The largest of the high-performing charter-management organizations in Los Angeles, Green Dot Public Schools now operates 21 schools in the Los Angeles area. Like the other charter-management groups, the majority of Green Dot's schools are located in the low-income communities of South Los Angeles.

In fact, Green Dot CEO Marco Petruzzi said there are so many charter schools in South Los Angeles that there is competition for students. He credits low enrollment, along with poor test scores, as the reason for closing Animo Justice.

“We basically had one school too many in the area. When people say ‘closing Justice,’ it sounds like we closed the school cold-heartedly. In reality, it was a consolidation,” said Petruzzi.

Cook said, however, that Green Dot closed the school due to threats from LAUSD that its charter would not be renewed. In his opinion, it was a “public relations stunt,” an attempt to save face and continue its expansion.

Reformers have long been attracted to urban environments, especially those like South Los Angeles with a majority of students of color (91 percent of Los Angeles Unified’s student population), many of whom come from immigrant families. Like knights astride white horses, they ride in and rescue students from the beleaguered classrooms of the district’s overcrowded high schools.

“Like any other movement, [the charter school movement] is not monolithic,” said David Berliner, an education professor at Arizona State University.  “There are charter operators who are spectacular educators and try to do a really good job with low-income kids in Watts or Harlem or other places, and the charter is a mechanism for them to see if they can.

“There’s an important audience to be served, because the public schools don’t do that. It seems to me that the way to do that is to change the public schools.”

In California, education entrepreneurs can apply for charters from the district, county or state. Therefore, there is little a district can do to stop their spreading, said Hill. 

Cindy Brown, an education expert at the Washington-based liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, said that charter schools introduce “school choice” to a wider range of students.

“Middle-income and upper-middle-income families, they have choices, and we need to provide choice to all people, not just based on their income,” said Brown.  “I think charters have done that. Some do a better job than others.”

Four charter schools previously occupied the current building of College-Ready Academy #7, located in the Crenshaw neighborhood of South-Central Los Angeles. Despite the school's membership in the high-performing Alliance College-Ready charter-management organization, Principal Rosalio Medrano said the history of the building is proving a detriment to enrollment.

“Right now, it’s about establishing the trust in the community that we are here to stay, and that we will be making every effort to do that,” said Medrano.

Because the school recently moved to the building from Watts, many of its students are bused in from public housing projects. If not for College-Ready Academy #7, many of them would attend Jordan High School.

“[The students are] dealing with that lifestyle, coming into an area like this and not being able to separate what they are getting here from their daily life, and it makes [educating] challenging,” said Medrano.

Kathy Martin, a graduating senior, said the realities of life in South-Central invade the hallways of her school.

“In the office, they know who affiliates with what person and who’s from what gang, and they have gang mediation with some of the counselors,” said Martin.  “They sit down with them and say, ‘You’re not in school for gangbanging, you’re not here for violence, it doesn’t matter who’s from what ‘hood, you’re on my campus and if you’re doing this you’re out.’ ”

A dedicated student who said she has wanted to go to college since the 6th grade, Martin will attend California State Polytechnic University in Pomona this September.

In fact, 65 percent of the graduating class at College-Ready Academy #7 will attend a four-year college.  The school has a 100 percent graduation rate, said Medrano.  Crenshaw High School, the neighboring district school, had a graduation rate of 41 percent during the 2009-10 school year.

But while still above Crenshaw High School’s API score of 567, College-Ready Academy #7’s score of 614 falls short of the district’s average by almost 100 points. In fact, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that charter schools perform the same or worse than their district counterparts 83 percent of the time.

“We’ve got now 15 to 20 years with charters,” said Arizona State's David Berliner. “The way they intended it was that they are more innovative; the free-market people love innovation. But they are not, and they are not as effective. And we know that too.” 

“The only thing that keeps them going is the same thing that keeps Wall Street saying we don’t need regulation,” he added. “[The belief] that the free market works in spite of the facts.”

Moving Forward

A sea of orange shirts swarmed the grounds of Jordan High School in mid-July. A hundred employees from Revolution Prep, an educational-services company, covered the campus as volunteers, weeding overgrown flowerbeds, sprucing up basketball courts and beautifying the school’s blue-and-white walls. In just a month and a half, the school would reopen with a fresh outlook and a fresh coat of paint.

Volunteers from Revolution Prep painted tables, weeded flowerbeds and cleaned classrooms at Jordan High School during the Day of Service.Volunteers from Revolution Prep painted tables, weeded flowerbeds and cleaned classrooms at Jordan High School during the Day of Service.>>

The day of service was hosted by Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. With Green Dot, the partnership hopes to breathe new life into the distressed campus. 

“This is the first time that the district has proactively taken an aggressive stance with a school that is chronically underperforming,” said Petruzzi.

And not only is the district taking an “aggressive stance,” it is also looking outside itself to do so.

“What this says to the kids of Jordan High is that LAUSD will partner with everyone to make sure we get to 100 percent graduation,” said Los Angeles Board of Education president Monica Garcia, in an address to the volunteers.

“Indeed, the revolution starts at Jordan High School,” Garcia said.

The days of traditional versus charter public schools are gone. In their place, an attitude of collaboration has arrived. 

“The introduction of a new model with dual providers is something that I’m interested in bringing to the high school level,” Garcia said later.  “Where you see in-district reform, charter efforts and dual operators, you’re seeing achievement go up.”

Professor Crew was right. Reform is now officially Los Angeles Unified’s agenda.

“They’re going to go in and change public education by virtually creating all these new schools. That’s just the way the political landscape is situated right now. They get to do it,” said Crew.

“But I don’t think you’re going to see anything better on the horizon for children. What they may have is a school around the corner called a ‘charter school’ that they can go to because it’s a new school ... but not necessarily a better school.”

Away from the hustle of the volunteers, a security guard stood outside a darkened room. From within came the clanking noises of barbells and dumbbells. The football team was working out for the upcoming fall season, the guard explained.

Although the school will be separated, the football team will remain as one.

And each day, the guard will stand outside the door during their weight training to make sure there are not any “problems.”

“Not everything’s going to change,” he said. 

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