Shock doctrine tactics applied to Los Angeles Unified come to a head this December, as the district reels in the face of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad’s plan to force 50% of public schools into private management. Mind you, the wealthy education dilettante’s last power play—pushing John Deasy into the Superintendent’s seat—was an abysmal failure. Deasy resigned under a cloud of corruption and was last being investigated by the FBI and the SEC for the appearance of bid-rigging or steering bids to cronies at Apple and Pearson.
While families in the district await imminent announcement of a new Superintendent, good governance advocates weigh recent revelations that charter lobbyists and billionaire donors gave over $2.5 million to LAUSD School Board and other races. And city residents anticipate that the nation’s second largest district may be facing an enormous, possibly bankrupting deficit. Advocates of public education in the district are braced for terrible news even as they work to counter the money, power, and greed deployed against them. Right now it feels as if the dominoes could fall in any number of ways.
The Broad Plan to Privatize
In September of 2015, the LA Times broke the story that Eli Broad’s foundation planned to spend $490 million over approximately eight years to push its plan to convert half of the schools in the district to charter schools run by private operators.
Because of the way both public school and charter school financing works, with California’s basic state grant “following the student” out of the district, the mass charter conversion scheme is, in effect, a mass de-funding scheme of the entire district. Districts like LAUSD, due to receive increased state funding to help support impoverished, English Language Learner, and fostered youth, represent a bonanza for charter operators who can collect larger pots of money represented by these groups of children. They maximize their profits by kicking expensive-to-educate special ed students back into the regular public school system.
Broad’s “charterization” business plan would fund both startup capital for new schools as well as the political apparatus to force through changes: personnel to convince parents that this plan is desirable and public relations and “public affairs” lobbying to create a favorable political environment. The attempt to shunt students into charter schools is also a direct attack on teachers unions papered over with the veneer of “school choice,” since most of these charters would likely hire non-unionized staff. Experienced teachers would have to re-apply for low-status, low-paid, and non-unionized jobs.
Broad’s leaked plan exposes the top-down nature of the charter sector. Never before has it been so glaringly evident how a single wealthy benefactor can rearrange a public school district according to his own ambitions. Families who previously viewed charter schools as a life raft for their children now must confront the sweeping nature of Broad’s plan: is it still “school choice” if a Broad-sponsored charter wave is the tsunami that eventually removes any other kind of school?
Threat of Large Deficits If Prop 30 Sunsets Without Extension
LAUSD School Board members are also grappling with a possible deficit of several hundred million dollars in the near term.
According to the LA Times, if Proposition 30 is not renewed, when it expires in 2018, between $333 and $600 million will be lost from LAUSD. The entire state of California will have to confront the need to extend Prop 30, but as the state’s largest school district, LAUSD’s $7.1 billion budget—one twenty-fourth the state budget—would cause disproportionate ripples as it contracted.
As a footnote, Eli Broad elicited a great deal of outrage when he lied to reporters and told them he supported Prop 30 in 2012, but in fact funneled campaign donations to an Arizona PAC to defeat it. Though he wasn’t successful in 2012, the continued financial health of Los Angeles Unified School District is a liability if he wants to implement his plans to use charters to privatize the district. And we know that some of the same people who financially back the current plan for LAUSD charter expansion in partnership with Eli Broad are the ones who also tried to use the dark money loophole like he did to defeat Prop 30.
The immediate revelation of the top-down, high-handed Broad plan sparked outrage and protest by UTLA and various community groups. Teachers, parents, and community members pushed back at the opening of Eli Broad’s museum.
Since the beginning of the school year in September, many activists ramped up their activities to speak out at town halls held by the consultants engaged by LAUSD to find the new superintendent. The thinking was that a strong leader with real commitment to the families sending children to LAUSD’s public schools would be vital to battling Eli Broad’s plan for the district.
The LA Times released a ridiculous field of possible candidates, many clearly with deep ties to Broad or the for-profit market approaches to school operations based in Silicon Valley or Wall Street, or politicians with no experience whatsoever in public education. Nevertheless, parents held their own town halls apart from the ones held by district-hired headhunters, and made sure to articulate their own priorities: small class sizes, arts programs, STEM opportunities, after school enrichment, and for the district as a whole, sound financial planning and someone who could rebuild trust with the community after the previous superintendent fiasco.
Names floated by community activists and parent leaders include Deputy Superintendent of LAUSD Michelle King, Local LAUSD Superintendent Roberto Martinez, superintendents in other parts of the state such as Fred Navarro at Newport-Mesa USD, Martin Gallindo at El Rancho USD, and possibly even long shot Alberto Carvalho, Superintendent of Miami-Dade USD, the fourth largest school district in the nation.
And finally, parents continually reminded the consulting firm hired to search for the next superintendent that LAUSD magnet schools are one shining example of the success of district schools, according to a study that current Superintendent Ramon Cortines commissioned.
LAUSD School Board Response
Recently elected LAUSD School Board Member Scott Schmerelson floated a resolution in early November that would’ve been a formal statement opposing the Broad plan, but a reading of the 1992 Charter Schools Act of California by the state’s privatization sector lobby group, and issued by its general counsel, pointed out how charter laws (purposely) allow few reasons for board members to turn down charter authorizations. No one seemed to note the irregularity of a lobbyist group reinterpreting state law on public education, School board members seemed resigned that California’s charter laws heavily favor charter creation regardless of need. In recent days, Schmerelson, a stalwart opponent of school privatization, proposed a revised resolution for the LAUSD School Board to vote upon which is a more general statement against the privatization of public schools.
It’ll be voted on next Tuesday, December 8, 2015.
A few LAUSD School Board members didn’t acquit themselves with confidence-inspiring actions upon learning of Broad’s plans, however. Monica Ratliff released an unusual plan prompted by School Board Member Richard Vladovic that would’ve topped Eli Broad’s plan by making all schools in the district charter schools. Many parent leaders in the district expressed puzzlement at the aims of this plan. While affiliated charters in LAUSD can be unionized and “more closely tied to the district” and independent charters have little to do with the district aside from authorization every five years, it was unclear what advantage there would be to having the LAUSD School Board make every single school in the district of 1,000+ schools an affiliated charter. It failed to gather support from other School Board members, and certainly would’ve been a high-stakes bet that 50% of teachers would return a no vote, or that Broad would’ve seized the day to gain more than what he originally set out to do and wait to break the teachers union later. For now, that resolution has died without signs of revival.
With almost no chance that the LAUSD School Board can thwart Broad’s plan, and with the announcement of the next superintendent of LAUSD expected around mid-December, the way forward won’t be clear until we know exactly what kind of person will lead the district next.