LA Daily News Editorial | http://bit.ly/gX19M9
1/27/2011 - There are elections under way this week in many neighborhoods of Los Angeles. And while the campaigns are sophisticated and well-financed, using expensive glossy campaign mailers - even a billboard in Granada Hills - pushing one candidate or the other, many if not most potential voters will never see a ballot.
It's the advisory community vote for the second round of L.A. Unified's Public School Choice program. And though this informal election may define the future of education in Los Angeles, it's shaping up more as a popularity contest than a true poll of public sentiment.
How could it be anything else? Putting such an important and complicated decision into the hands of relatively uninformed voters, who then are subject to the big-money campaigns of players with huge personal stakes, is an idea only a political strategist could love.
The Public School Choice Program was created in desperation. Nothing seemed to work in the district's worst-performing schools, and opening them up to outside operators seemed the only way to pull them out of the bureaucratic downward spiral. Under the program, anyone with a plan can propose to take over the management at failing or newly opening schools - charters, teacher teams, unions, etc.
To the unions representing teachers and other school workers, school choice is an encroachment on their entitlements rather than an exciting potential to transform education in Los Angeles. Outside school operators don't have to honor existing teacher contracts.
In this round of school choice, there are two brand-new high schools in the San Fernando Valley up for grabs. And the electioneering in the surrounding communities has been fierce, especially for the new school in Granada Hills, which has two main contenders: the operators of Granada Hills Charter High School and a collaboration between LAUSD's District 1, teachers at Monroe High School and United Teachers Los Angeles.
Although the Board of Education makes the final decision on the winning of bids for the 13 schools in this round, the advisory vote allows parents, teachers, students and anyone with a stake in a school to cast a vote for one of the proposals. On Saturday, the final votes for the Valley schools will be cast.
While the vote is nonbinding, it is expected to strongly influence the outcome. That's why UTLA and the state's charter school association have dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaigns for their sides.
The Board of Education must recognize that the results of the advisory vote, whatever they may be, are unlikely to be trustworthy. One can't expect the full understanding of a dense proposal to be adequately digested by reading a few, possibly misleading statements on a mailer paid for by a organization with financial interest in the result.
They must also remember the lesson of last year's advisory vote. In the first round of School Choice bidding, the elections were widely derided as a joke. The union mobilized teachers to make sure they voted their interests - and some even voted more than once.
Parents had no such motivated organization pushing them to the polls. In fact, someone tried to scare off parents from participating in that election, warning they might be deported if they did so (many of the district's failing schools are in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods).
Besides, making the tough, politically dangerous choices is what the LAUSD board members were elected to do. They should not abdicate their responsibility to those with the deepest political pockets.
This is an exciting time for LAUSD. The normal growth of charter schools and the innovation of the Public School Choice Program are breathing new life into the old educational paradigm. At the new high school for the Northeast Valley, there are nine different proposals alone from organizations wanting to launch exciting programs and academies.
Round 2 of the groundbreaking Public School Choice Program should not be marred by a suspect advisory election that is being hijacked by political interests. If that's allowed, the future of the program, and education at LAUSD, has an uncertain future.