Wednesday, August 26, 2009


By Diana L. Chapman

I predict disaster.

And lawsuits.

At a contentious Los Angeles Unified School Board meeting Tuesday, I believe an old grizzly escaped out of the bag when the board voted 6-1 to approve a resolution – allowing organizations outside the district, charters or non-profits, to compete for 50 new schools and scores of struggling campuses in the district.

In a nutshell, Los Angeles Unified will have to compete to run its own schools, which some people are calling the “privatization of public schools.”

I call it more than that. I call it a give-away.

Only one school board member opposed it, Maugeritte LaMotte, who asked some serious questions that this resolution does not answer; The actual “the devils in the details” will come from School Superintendent Ramon Cortines.

Proponents are calling this “school choices” for families. Now, I will say this upfront, David Kooper, chief of staff for Board Member Richard Vladovic, has tried pretty much everything to convince me this is a good thing – and has had a hard time at it.

He’s debated with me repeatedly that this is exactly what the district needs to buck up and do the hard-core work necessary to take care of kids in the district. The competition, he says, will force the district to just get better – where the test scores have been dismal and dropout rate has ranged as high as 50 percent.

But it leaves my mind boggled. The district – yes, it’s been trouble-plagued as the second largest in the nation – but that’s because we, as a society, believe it should take over the mom, dad, cousin, aunt, uncle role – and become the family.

That’s next-to-impossible – and while I agree, yes, the district could do so much better, what I saw yesterday was a divorce. And I will be surprised if it’s not an ugly one at that. We all know who pays the most in divorces – the kids.

Unfortunately, board member Steve Zimmer, a teacher and counselor on the board, voted for the proposal, saying even though he had concerns, he needed to keep a voice in the process to protect those who truly care about kids. LaMotte, on the other hand, said she was still a member of the board, would voice her opinion – and voted forcefully against the decision.

At least LaMotte voted for what she believed.

Kooper keeps pointing out that this allows Cortines to add more restrictions and requests and contends this gives the district a better way to get a handle on the flourishing charter movement and some controls they wouldn’t have otherwise. Maybe he’s right. Actually, I hope to God he is.

But I still can’t get over the fact that it puts about a third of the district’s schools up for grabs.

What I don’t believe the public really understands is that while choices are good, the charters and non-profits will likely proliferate (currently they are running just like Los Angeles schools – a mixed bag of good and bad) and not have the intense state regulations the district faces, which makes me even more nervous.

Besides, Kooper said, the school board will get the chance to look at each and every proposal – and decide which best suits the school, adding more controls.

But I still have fears.

I will spell them out and maybe Cortines can respond to some of these:

-- For one: I want to know what will happen to all the children who are emotionally disturbed, physically handicapped, have speech impediments or any learning disabilities and such – because any private organization, charter or non-profit, that can show that they don’t have the resources to help those students are off the hook.

--For two: who is going to take care of those children who are delinquent juveniles and will test the system to extremes? Charters can toss them out, and they wind up at the public schools.

--For three: over the years, I’ve seen various organizations take over the parklands of Los Angeles, saying they will pay for the upkeep. They do - - and then they have control over who uses it. For example, in San Pedro, the Boy Scouts took over some Los Angeles port property, tucked right on a harbor inlet. They pay some ridiculous fee like $1 a year lease – and guess who does not get to use it: Most of the children in San Pedro. In fact, the white elephant building sits there unused on a daily basis – because a non-profit literally holds the keys to its doors.

--For four: parents who think they are in the picture might want to think again. While legally, parents can push their way into public schools, that can be next-to- impossible at a charter who doesn’t want parents there. Thus, charters can operate with their own rules and initiatives, not really accountable to anyone but their own board.

--For five: what happens when charters fire teachers – like Celerity Nascent charters did – when two junior high teachers decided to instruct about the hanging of 14-yearold Emmett Till, an African-American boy who was hanged in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. The lessons were part of Black History month. Or for instance, charter’s that decide to teach only in Spanish, even though this America. The answer: nothing.

And that’s where the whole issue falls into a giant black hole for me. Hopefully, I’m 100 percent wrong and the approving board is right. The resolution didn’t take up any of these questions.

People keep saying that the district is not accountable. But now that hundreds of schools will be privately operated on public funds, we might learn what “not accountable” really means.

Instead of having a spider under the same umbrella we can run checks on – using district policy whether its good or not – we will have hundreds of baby spiders running all over the place.

And those spiders, I fear, will remain unchecked and unaccountable, virtually to anyone.