A Better Trigger for Parents on Local Control of Schools

Little Rock  I’m skeptical of many of these so-called public school “reform” efforts because too many seem to really be privatization schemes in disguise or elite stalking horses for charter school operators.  Despite numerous studies finding that teachers are the key that unlocks almost all of the educational doors for children, most of these efforts are also anti-teacher and raging maniacs when it comes to how quickly they foam at the mouth about unions. 

I had some hopes for Stand for Children, but watching the role they played in Louisiana recently and their scandalous mischief in Chicago earlier, lead me to believe that they have increasingly gone over to the dark side.   Conversations with the Parent Revolution people over the last six months made me hopeful with reservations, because despite the fact that they seemed better on unions, unions were still opposing them fiercely, and too many of the wrong people were seizing on their “parent trigger” propositions in various states to subvert local control and parent participation into charter schemes and loss of public control.

Recent conversations in New Orleans a week or so ago and on-the-air at KABF  with Pat DeTemple, senior strategist for the California-based Parent Revolution, are forcing me to re-evaluate the way the parent trigger might work in the right ways to create real local power and voice for parents in forcing all parties to bring their best game to educate their children.   Much of this has to do with an interesting situation in one Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) where parents seemed to have used the trigger masterfully.  51% of the parents must sign a petition demanding that the school be reorganized for better educational performance with various options that might include changing the principal, bringing in charter, and so forth.  In this instance the parents put out a request for proposals to see who would step up to their mark.  More than a half-dozen charters applied, but so did the LA School District.  The parents negotiating committee ended up looking at the two bids outstanding, one from a charter that was already on campus in 5th grade and one that was from the District itself, which wanted to prove that it could make the school work.  The parents told both of them to come back with one joint proposal, and damned if they didn’t, and it was a great one.  The District promised that it would add an early childhood program and both parties agreed to enrich the program so that the higher 5th grade standards would be maintained and achieved by more students.   This new program goes live this coming fall, so it will be worth watching.

Another hopeful sign is a bill moving through the Louisiana legislature that would allow the parent trigger to be used to bring schools seized by the state back under democratic local control.  The bill has made it through the House and is now moving through the Senate without much opposition. 

What all this says to me is that situations like these which allow a real voice and a legitimately locally driven solution could be important and powerful instruments of community control.  When the trigger can only be pulled in one direction, usually to the charters, it is little more than part of a circular firing squad, so why wouldn’t everyone oppose this, but if the legislation can allow full and robust options, real parent power, then maybe a “parent revolution” could make public schools work around the country.

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Why are NYC Hedge Funders and Rupert Murdoch messing in a NOLA School Board Race?

New Orleans  In the days when New Orleans had a daily paper, it might have been a big issue that hundreds of thousands of dollars in out of state money has flooded one particular school board race.  Perhaps not, because those were also the days before Katrina when 100% of the schools in New Orleans were governed by our local elected school board so people and the paper and the interests it represents had to care about how the citizens and taxpayers voted.  Now of course, 80% of the schools are outside of the jurisdiction of the local school board or any electoral accountability in the post-Katrina state and federally manipulated privatization and charterizing of the public school system.  All of this money, including sizable contributions from New York hedge fund handler, Boykin Curry, and Joel Klein, Rupert Murdoch’s global henchman, seems largely determined to prevent citizens’ from acquiring any accountability in the name of charters and everything else be damned.

Now that I’m confident Obama’s “got this,” I started looking at my local races last night. I’m torn on a city council race between a fellow who is clearly the CBD and developer’s candidate and a lawyer backed by labor who tried to sue ACORN and me to try and take over the ACORN accounting system for a client four years ago.   Can’t pull the lever there, because I’m holding my nose with both hands!   But the big stack of mail waiting for me to plow through was about the school board races not the election for President or City Council or anything else.

Stand for Children, which is a new upstart in New Orleans funded by some of the same outside groups it seems to front for the charter movement, has sent me several mailings with their endorsements.  Since they have virtually no track record here and virtually no identifiable base, this is clearly an independent expenditure campaign being financed by some of the same billionaire/millionaire sudden interest in public schools.  Though the Times-Picayune, formerly our hometown daily paper, has almost no political juice now, relegated to putting out its endorsements on Sunday with no Election Day edition and not even bothering for the first time in my memory even endorsing a candidate for President, the Stand for Children and Times-Picayune endorsements tracked identically where they both endorsed.  I doubt this is coincidence since both seem joined in representing the prevailing business and elite interests in no accountability for charters gone wild.

The  race in the 3rd District has attracted the big bucks where there are three candidates, one of whom is the incumbent, because one the city’s charter queens, Sarah Newell Usdin, is running for a seat.   In trying to root out the story on Usdin, it seems she started her charters from scratch, like so many others, in the wake of Katrina.  The IRS 990 in her school’s last filing says she managed to pay herself almost $200,000 a year to manage these nine or so charters as the “founder” and chair of the board, and that figure doesn’t seem to include a $100,000 bonus she had her handpicked board give her for getting the contract renewed to run the charters.  The record for her charters seems like something she would not have wanted to get so much exposure.  One had to be closed for nonperformance, four had “Fs,” three had “D’s,” with one “C,” and one “B.”  Eeewww!

Education Week made these points even more clearly in a piece I stumbled on last night:

The amount of money–and the out-of-state sources for some of it–has prompted sharp criticism from Mr. Bonin and Ms. Harper Royal [her opponents], as well as from some voters and educators in New Orleans, and is reminiscent of a Louisiana board of education race last year that attracted hordes of cash from out-of-state supporters for one candidate.

“You just have to ask what are they doing in our politics,” said Roslyn Johnson Smith, a longtime school administrator in New Orleans who founded a charter school in the Treme neighborhood after the hurricane. “To me, it looks only like a fight over money and political control. It’s a business conversation, not a conversation about educating our children.”

What is really at stake here though is the fact the charter cheerleaders want to have seats on both sides of the negotiating table as they try to set the terms for coming back under the Orleans School System, which is inevitable.  Many of the charters, including Ms. Usdin’s, have been pushing a petition of demands on the school board for extralegal levels of unaccountability in order to try and access the taxing authority of the board which is held exclusively by citizens still.  Clearly the business and wealthy elites understand this well, so they are trying to get some “inside” help.

Education Week had this clear as well:

The board has authority to set tax rates and take out debt. It also must hire a new superintendent in the coming months and could begin taking control over city schools that had been swept into the state-run Recovery School District after Hurricane Katrina.

Ironically, one of the people the big money folks are trying to depose is a Republican board member and a huge fan of charters as well, but he seems to have not made muster because he thinks they should be “community-based” and controlled by the elected board.  The other candidate also has a special interest, making sure that “special needs” students have a place in a privatized, charterized public school system, which is also felt to be threatening to the charter movement it seems.

So, why all of the outside money?  Either of those candidates would have seemed acceptable to business?  Seems this is about manipulating the process to keep the school system out of the reach of the citizens again by stacking the deck in a different way.

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