Thursday, August 27, 2009

HEADS HE WINS/TAILS KIDS LOSE: Two sides of a bad story

Schools choice vote represents new start for Los Angeles schools

L.A. mayor's school victory an empty one

LA Daily News Editorial

by  Earl Ofari Hutchinson | Daily News Op-Ed

27 August -- THE Los Angeles Unified School District has taken many wrong turns over the last few decades. Tuesday, finally, it took a right turn toward what could lead to an education renaissance in Los Angeles.

Surprisingly (!)* , nearly all of the members of the LAUSD's Board of Education voted to approve a controversial - and startling innovative - proposal by board Vice President Yolie Flores Aguilar to allow outside operators to compete with the district for the right to run 50 new schools and many underperforming ones.

Why this is surprising is because in recent years, the school board has lacked any real backbone when it came to adopting honest reform measures. This was due mainly to the power of the political unions and the L.A. establishment, hoping to squash any action that might limit their powers, and the near complete disconnection of the community from the schools.

We applaud the school board members for having the courage to stand up to opposition. This measure puts educational choices back in the hands of the community, which is where they always belonged.

But while this is a hopeful development, it is hardly a panacea for local education. Charter schools are not the solution to, but a symptom of the long illness of public education in Los Angeles and California.

Nor does the resolution represent a takeover by charter schools, as the opposition has characterized it. Certainly, getting a chance to compete with a bloated and clumsy public school district could be a boon for charter school operator who don't have an enormous and convoluted bureaucracy and angry special interests on its back.

However, it's fair to say that charter schools were already in the process of taking over schools. Decades of failing to address parent concerns and deal with falling student achievement had prompted an exodus of students from traditional schools to charters and private schools. Over the last five years, at least, LAUSD has started each school year with significantly fewer students than the previous year - and not all of those were dropouts.

In other words, an unsanctioned, but purely organic takeover was - and is - already in the works.

Indeed, the schools choice plan opens the doors to anyone with a good academic plan - including and especially LAUSD. Hopefully, this will prompt the district to rise to the challenge to improve education. Competition in any arena is healthy and productive. Any student can tell you that.

This could be a new start not only for local education, but for LAUSD itself. There's no reason that the nation's second largest school district can't be the winner in an education competition. And if it can't, then it should get out of the way.


* Surprisingly? The LADN is surprised that the best school board money can buy voted the way they were told?

27 August -- IF anyone thought that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had given up on his long-standing delusion that he can run schools better than anyone else, the L.A. Board of Education's decision on Tuesday to hand over anywhere from 50 to 250 schools to any and all comers should slap them back to reality. Many of those comers will almost certainly be those that meet with the mayor's approval.

The schools have always been the political jewel in the crown for Villaraigosa. He believes that transforming Los Angeles Unified School District from the national poster district for chronically underserved schools, miserable test scores and skyhigh dropout rates into a model of student achievement, excellence and teacher professionalism will enshrine his political legacy.

During his first term, Villaraigosa wasted months and squandered millions of dollars in legal wrangles trying to grab control of the schools. The courts told the mayor no dice. But the intrepid Villaraigosa was undaunted by the legal smackdown. He handpicked and bankrolled a slew of candidates to get a near majority on the school board.

His school board allies dutifully turned a handful of terribly performing schools over to the mayor's stewardship. But this only fed Villaraigosa's still-burning desire to be the LAUSD's white knight. Tuesday's decision by the board to allow charter schools and other school operators to bid for the right to run new and underperforming schools gave him a bigger piece of the school action.

The problem with all this is that there's little evidence that charter schools under Villaraigosa's watch, or anyone else's, can attain the miracle of turning low-grade public schools around.

The Stanford University's Center for Research report on charter school performance released in June found that more charter schools performed at a subpar level than many traditional public schools. Even more damning, the study found that students in predominantly black and Hispanic charter schools on average did worse than black and Hispanic students in regular public schools. The one arguable exception was that the poorest students and those with limited English skills did better in charter schools.

But even this notable improvement had more to do with the abysmal failure of the public schools they came from to provide resources, quality teachers and the mandate of full parent involvement. Also, the best of the crop of charter schools shine because they have the luxury to cherrypick the best and brightest of the students from the poorest schools. And they have myriad ways to get rid of the students who are the least academically desirable.

Handing over dozens of public schools to individuals and interest groups with questionable educational experience and unproven track records - not to mention with minimal controls over who and how they hire and fire - carries grave risks. L.A. teachers union officials have screamed at the top of their lungs that teachers will be the biggest losers if charter schools become the norm in L.A. Villaraigosa and charter school supporters slough off the criticism as a case of a union desperately trying to maintain an overpaid, overprotected and outdated teacher work force.

The union's argument, though, ignores two issues about charter schools. One, that charter schools miss as often, or more, than they hit in ratcheting up student achievement levels. Second, it ignores the fact that the L.A, schools have bombed in large part because of poverty, immigration, language difficulties and gross underfunding.

The mayor's cheerleading and orchestration of his school board allies and sign-waving parents groups to get an even bigger hand in bossing the L.A. schools paid off with a victory. But given Villaraigosa's yet-to-be-proven remake of the L.A. schools he already runs, the victory will be prove to be pyrrhic one.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author, political analyst and contributor to the Daily News' Friendly Fire blog. His radio show can be heard on KTYM 1460-AM.

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