The thousands of people gathered at Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) headquarters Tuesday gave board members an ear full as they prepared to vote on a divisive reform plan that would allow non-profit groups to submit bids to operate certain district campuses beginning next year.
The boards 6-1 approval of the “Public School Choice” resolution seemed to be an anti-climatic conclusion to an otherwise lively four-hour session of finger pointing, accusations and an occasional compliment.
Under the approved plan, non-profit charter operations and other educational institutions will be allowed to bid for control of 50 new schools – including 20 campuses in the 2010-2011 school year – plus 200 low-performing campuses.
The change will affect more than 200,000 students, representing more than one-third of the district’s student population.
Board Member Marguerite LaMotte’s lone dissenting vote generated the final burst of applause from a group of teachers and resolution opponents watching the meeting on a T.V. monitor in the building’s cafeteria. Moments earlier, fellow Board Member Steve Zimmer provided the afternoon’s most dramatic moment for the opponents when he eventually cast a vote in favor of the resolution after spending the majority of the meeting expressing strong opposition.
Tuesday’s meeting marked an important date for a variety of teacher’s unions, community groups, parent organizations and students. Alliance College-Ready Public Schools held a rally outside district headquarters in the hours leading up to the 1 p.m. meeting. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a vocal supporter of the proposal, egged on the crowd, saying the measure will be a new beginning for education.
“We’re going to say yes to choice, no to the status quo, yes to innovation, yes to parent participation,” he said to the crowd.
After the rally, a separate group of students and activist staged a protest around the headquarters building as the Board conducted the meeting inside.
Opponents of the resolution repeatedly challenged the board to prove that a back-door deal was not already in place and that the public was not wasting its time in attending the meeting. Several speakers openly mocked board members for “being in the Mayor’s pocket.” Opponents chastised board members repeated use of data revealing the low-test scores and high dropout rates of district schools.
They likened the usage as attacks against their communities and countered with various tales of success experienced by students in the district.
In one heated moment, Ricardo Rivas, a teacher at Garfield High School referenced one of the Eastside’s proudest moments in his public comment. “Do not tell the students that found the courage to ‘Stand and Deliver’ to sit down and shut-up.”
Supporters of the resolution were careful to acknowledge those singular cases of success but pressed that there was still a need for progressive reform to help those students who do not experience the same success.
In his comments to the board, Superintendent Ramon Cortines said aggressive action is long overdue.
“For too long we have protected the status quo,” he said.
Supporters repeatedly used the status quo phrase in urging the board to take this opportunity to make a dramatic change in the way the much-maligned district operates its schools.
Monique Bacon of Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools expressed supporter’s frustration with the city’s school system: “I’m here on behalf of thousands of parents who are in support of the resolution for choice,” she said. “We have no intention of standing by to allow another 50 state-of-the-art schools to be built on the backs of taxpayers that have the same failing programs in them.”
Board President Monica Garcia and other board members urged both supporters and opponents to quickly move beyond the heated discussions in order to become part of the reform efforts. With the resolution’s passing, new efforts will be required to heal the wounds created through the sometimes-vicious attacks. For the past few weeks, numerous groups have staged town-hall meetings on both sides of the issue.
On Monday evening, Board Member Yolie Flores-Aguilar spent two hours on the wrong side of a heated community town-hall meeting at Garfield High School. A coalition of parents, students, teachers and community activist peppered their school board representative with demands to rescind the resolution she proposed. Speaker after speaker chided Flores-Aguilar for their perceptions of her as an “absentee” representative. She was repeatedly taken to task for a failure to communicate with Garfield stakeholders concerning the resolution. One student began her remarks by admitting she was simply confused by the proposal and its potential outcome. Parents and students criticized Flores-Aguilar for not conducting enough outreach concerning the proposal as well as for a lack of resolution materials available in Spanish.
Last Friday, parents and students staged a rally outside Garfield. Several adults and students wore red shirts that stated opposition to the “privatization of public education.” The resolution, as clarified by the board on Tuesday, will accept bids from not-for profit entities only. Some students at the rally told EGP that the proposal confused them. Some had only become aware of the issue less than three-weeks-ago. Vanessa Jaimes, a Garfield freshman said she was concerned that if students fail their classes they will be kicked out of the school. Her older sister Annabel, a Garfield alumnus, worried that colleges and universities may devalue Garfield diplomas if the school changed its management.
Hector Gomez, a Garfield sophomore said it was unfair that students were not informed of the plan. He along with other speakers vented their frustrations with the constant use of negative statistics to describe their schools.
“We’re not guinea pigs,” he said at last Friday’s rally. “We’re proud to be Bulldogs!”
The majority of comments made at Friday’s rally and Monday’s town hall meeting demonstrated a clear lack of knowledge on the complex organizational structures of charter operators and other non-profit institutions poised to take control of public schools. This is part of the challenge the district appears to have to confront as it moves forward with its new plan. Cortines acknowledged this much during his speech.
“We need to do a better job of listening to our community,” he said.
With Tuesday’s historic vote in the books, a clearly fractured faculty and student body begin the new school year with a certain level of uncertainty about their future.