OpEd in the Daily News By Robert D. Skeels
August 23, 2009 -- HOW can you have an education "town hall" where the townsfolk aren't invited?
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Ben Austin staged two such events this month touting LAUSD Vice President Yolie Flores Aguilar's school choice resolution, which is up for vote on Tuesday.
Locking out those most concerned with the content of those meetings - parents, educators and the community - is a harbinger of how public education may look should the resolution pass. In fact, the closed meetings stand as metaphors for how the majority of charter management organizations work: undemocratic, top down, run by noneducators, and unaccountable to the communities where they operate.
Noting widespread public opposition to Flores Aguilar's resolution, particularly at town halls featuring LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines, the mayor and his Green Dot allies made sure their Boyle Heights and Venice meetings were town halls in name only.
The first was held midday Aug. 11. The Garfield Town Hall was hosted at Catholic Charities instead of Garfield High School, notably because Garfield's parents, teachers, and community have vehemently opposed Green Dot's ongoing hostile takeover attempts for over a year. The community was locked outside while parents bused in from other locations comprised the audience.
Those locked out were told they would have been admitted had they called to reserve a spot.
That's what many people did for the next day's town hall in Venice once they obtained a number for RSVPs. The number was voice mail for Green Dot's paid organizer and none of us were ever called back. The Aug. 12 town hall in Venice was another closed meeting.
Despite the fact that he's a former deputy mayor, many people are unaware of who Ben Austin is. Austin poses as a concerned parent from an impacted community bravely fighting for school reform in public settings. Instead, Austin holds two prominent positions, has a six-figure salary and lives in Beverly Hills.
Austin's day job is an assistant city attorney for Los Angeles. His second job is executive director of Parent Revolution (n e Los Angeles Parents Union). Surprisingly, this seeming conflict of interest goes unchallenged, despite his financial interest in passage of Flores Aguilar's resolution. Parent Revolution is an AstroTurf group. It was founded by, funded and shares an office building with Green Dot. Parent Revolution supplied the audience at these town halls, an audience vetted for its allegiance with the mayor, Flores Aguilar, and Austin's corporate charter school choice resolution.
Mayor Villaraigosa claims his town halls were closed for fear of disruption. It's far more likely the mayor and Austin were afraid parents, educators, and community members would inevitably ask inconvenient questions such as:
Why doesn't the so-called School Choice Resolution allow School Site Councils and communities to choose the operator of new schools?
Why isn't Animo Watts' 494 API - the 42nd worst in Los Angeles County - ever mentioned when Green Dot is lauded as vastly outperforming public schools?
Why is Green Dot held up the best college preparation model when it has five schools among the 35 lowest-average SAT scores in the county?
Why rush to push this resolution through? Why not allow more debate?
There's a reason the findings of a Stanford University Center Research on Education Outcomes report on lagging education in charter schools aren't being addressed, along with other questions about privatization. They're the same reasons why the mayor's town hall meetings locked the community out.
While supporters of Flores-Aguilar's resolution claim it's "for the kids," the conflicts of interest, nefarious benefactors, opportunism and political maneuvering show they're doing it "for the cronies."
Students, parents, communities and taxpayers deserve better.
- Robert D. Skeels is a technical writer and an education and immigrant rights activist in Los Angeles. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.