Charter schools versus democracy

June 29, 2011

Sarah Knopp and Gillian Russom reports on the fight to prevent a Los Angeles public school from becoming a charter.

THE BATTLE between pro- and anti-charter school forces in Los Angeles has come to a head in the fight to save Clay Middle School from the charter school operator Green Dot.

Rep. Maxine Waters, the member of Congress for the area, jumped into the fight to save Clay at a June 18 community meeting organized by incensed parents. At the meeting, Waters said, "Unfortunately, many of the policies that we've seen in Bush's No Child Left Behind are being continued under this administration. There are people in high places pushing the charter movement, including your [Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa]. The best way to deal with it is to organize, organize, organize."

Marguerite LaMotte, the only member of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board who has opposed charter schools, was also at the meeting. "I'm sick and tired of people looking at children with dollar bills on their foreheads," she said. "I have to ask [the charter proponents]: 'Hey, why are you an educator all of a sudden?'"

The LAUSD board, backed by a mayor intent on attacking the very teachers' union that launched his career, is leading the pro-charter charge.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

The board voted in May to take away the community advisory vote in the Public School Choice (PSC) process. Under the PSC policy unveiled in August 2009, dozens of new schools first opening up and dozens of existing schools in "program improvement" under the rules of No Child Left Behind, are put up for bid each year. In most cases, charter schools write plans that compete with plans written by teacher activists and parents. The community vote, though not binding, is supposed to show which has popular support.

Because parents understand the dynamics at work, in each one of the advisory votes to date, the community/public school plan has prevailed over charter plans. But in school board votes in 2010 and 2011, a total of 11 schools have been given to charters anyway.

This shows that the "advisory vote" was never intended to be genuine input. Still, it is a further slap in the face to parents to have the vote taken away completely.

"I was born in the '50s," said Janice Osei from Manhattan Place School. "I remember the people who fought and the who that died for the right to vote. And the fact that elected officials are taking away the right to vote--I'm appalled." Another teacher who both graduated from and taught at Henry Clay Middle School and Washington High School, said, "Green Dot is a business; let's not forget it."

A teacher from LaSalle Elementary got at the broader questions of the PSC process at the community meeting: "Our school is up for Public School Choice next year. When people look at our school, all they see is an API score of 622, and they think that it's a bad school. But they don't see what the district has done to destroy our school from within. And they don't see all of the positive things and all the love still coming from teachers at the school."

CLAY MIDDLE School was turned over to Green Dot Public Schools by the board, despite the fact that the advisory vote, by a 3-to-1 margin, backed the plan to keep the school public, rather than give it to Green Dot.

When the board heard that United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) planned to challenge the giveaway of the school as a violation of the state education code, officials declared they weren't converting the school into a charter--but rather that the school was being closed and a Green Dot school opened on the same campus, with the same students.

No letter was ever sent to students' homes to advise parents of this "change." But several parent activists began organizing with the help of UTLA. They have spent two weekends going door-to-door in the community to collect signatures opposing the takeover, and more community outreach is planned. Parents will also gather to challenge the school board at its July 12 meeting.

LAUSD doesn't want to see parents and teachers getting organized to fight for their schools. "I have been made aware, through many phone calls to my office," Waters said, "that there is an effort to keep parents from talking to one another and to keep parents from organizing."

Referring to Green Dot's strategy of organizing a group of parent "volunteers" called the Parent Revolution, an organization that is bused around the city on Green Dot's dime to advocate for charter schools, Waters said, "Parents are being intimidated because parents from other areas and other schools have been organized to go against them."

Noemi Gutierrez, a parent who sits on all of Clay's governance boards, knows about this pressure--she was stopped from passing out literature on the campus supporting the public school plan.

Gutierrez doesn't want Green Dot to take over Clay because her older son attended a Green Dot school. Gutierrez says she had enrolled him at the charter because the local public school had lost its accreditation. But she felt the Green Dot school did very little to support his special needs, compared to the public schools he had attended.

UTLA has filed legal challenges against the board's giveaway of Clay and part of Jordan High School to Green Dot.

According to California's Charter Schools Act, more than 50 percent of existing permanent status teachers at a school have to approve of the charter conversion. In 2010, in an effort to attract Race to the Top funds to the state, California passed the so-called "Parent Empowerment Act," which allows a school to be converted into a charter if over 50 percent of parents sign a petition.

Neither of these things happened in the cases of Clay and Jordan.

Moreover, LAUSD is not informing parents of their rights to transfer their children to other schools. As school board member LaMotte pointed out, if a school is converted through reconstitution, closed down or given to a charter, students who are displaced have a right to be sent by the district to a school that's not in "program improvement"--in other words, suffering from chronic low test scores. "Where are they going to send them around here?" she asked sarcastically.

Monique Epps, head of LAUSD's charters division, was in attendance at the meeting. When Waters asked her what options parents would have if they don't want their child to attend a Green Dot school, she responded that they would have to obtain an opt-out form and take it to school district offices in Gardena. Their child might be sent to a school more than 40 blocks away, though Epps didn't know which school or how students would get there.

The push for charter schools in Los Angeles is part of a larger trend toward privatization in public education--one that, as Waters acknowledges, is being pushed enthusiastically by the party she belongs to, the Democrats, including Barack Obama and his charter-crusading education secretary, Arne Duncan.

In closing the meeting, Waters said, "I'm shocked by what I've heard here today. Even though I'm focusing on Clay, it seems like this is a citywide problem. Right now, there's only one thing that's going to save us, and it's not the courts, it's the people. We're going to keep organizing."

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