Friday, May 11, 2007

Fighting charters in Los Angeles

There's a fascinating battle going on right now over Locke High School in Los Angeles. The school has traditionally been at the bottom of the heap of schools in LA. More than half the kids drop out and those that stay don't seem to be learning much. So the principal, Frank Wells, after being frustrated in being able to turn the school around has decided that the solution is to let Green Dot Public Schools take over the entire school and split it up into several charter schools. Wells really shook things up with this statement.
While going out of his way to emphasize that there are many effective teachers at Locke, Wells highlighted the district's failure to put its best teachers in its worst schools, where they are needed most. More funding, he said, is not the solution.

"The more you fail, the more money they throw at you," he said. "We're filthy rich; I don't want any more of your money. Send me quality teachers."
Boy that rings a bell. In a former job, I worked at an inner-city magnet school that received a portion of a huge federal three-year grant for magnets in order to improve the school enough that suburban (read: white) kids to choose the school. We bought stuff like crazy. We had money coming out of our ears to throw at every idea that anyone had about school improvement. I asked at one faculty meeting what would happen if we didn't reach the benchmarks set out in the grant proposal. No one wanted to even entertain that possibility. Well, of course we didn't reach those benchmarks. And what was our punishment? Why, to receive the grant again for another three years since obviously all we needed was more money. We never did reach those benchmarks, but we had some snazzy technology.

Back to Locke High. I don't know if the school is named after John Locke, but apparently the principal is not the only one who is asserting a right of rebellion when the powers that be have failed to protect the members of the community. Principal Wells went back to his school and Green Dot circulated a petition for teachers to sign if they wanted to convert to a charter. And a majority of the tenured teachers as well as many of the non-tenured teachers signed the petition.
Green Dot Public Schools, which has clashed frequently with the board in its aggressive push to expand, has quietly overseen the collection of signatures of support from a majority of the tenured teachers at Locke High School — clearing the major legal hurdle toward converting the campus into a series of charter schools.
Think of what it means for the tenured teachers to sign such a petition. Green Dot is promising that all the teachers would have to reapply for a teaching job at the charter. I don't know if Green Dot operates like my charter school here in North Carolina where I had to give up tenure in order to move from a regular public school to teach here, but they are running the risk of losing their jobs. And they'd lose their comfy benefits that the teachers union has negotiated for them.
The group's charter petition — a copy of which was provided to The Times and which must be voted on by the seven-member school board — calls for Green Dot to receive its funding directly from the state, instead of allowing it to first pass through district coffers. Teachers who wish to remain at the deeply troubled school would have to re-apply for their jobs to principals hired by Green Dot. The extensive labor agreement negotiated by the district's teachers union would also be thrown out, as Locke teachers would work under the shorter, simpler pact signed by Green Dot's union.
Well, Los Angeles Public Schools isn't taking this challenge to them lying down. They've fought back by....suspending the principal!
Underscoring the anxiety and anger the plan is unleashing within the district, Locke Principal Frank Wells was escorted off campus and relieved of his duties late Tuesday afternoon pending the outcome of a district investigation into allegations that Wells allowed teachers to leave their classrooms to collect and sign petitions.

Wells called the charges "a total fabrication," saying no classes were disrupted as teachers signed and collected signatures during non-class time. Teachers who helped collect signatures supported Wells' version of events.
The union is particularly upset at this threat to their power.
For their part, union officials stand to lose more than just the dues-paying members who bolt to Green Dot. Union leaders have been some of the harshest critics of the charter movement in Los Angeles, and of Green Dot in particular. The support for Green Dot by rank-and-file Locke teachers could undermine the authority of union leaders and their position as major power brokers in the district — especially if teachers at other schools follow suit.

"I'm going to urge teachers around the city to rise up and take control of their schools," said English teacher Smith, who plans to speak at today's news conference. "You can cross out Locke and put in Roosevelt High, or Dorsey or Crenshaw."

....A.J. Duffy, president of the union, angrily denounced Green Dot's collection of signatures, saying teachers should have been given a chance to first hear other reform ideas from the union and other groups. He said the union is trying to pull together a counter plan to present to Locke teachers in coming weeks.
As Eduwonk says,
Funny, they never say that in the "card check" debate...
Hee hee.

Link via Mickey Kaus who translates the "anxiety and anger" that the LA Times describes this controversy arousing, as journalistic code for really saying:
Terrified by the threat that if a big ghetto high school like Locke secedes the entire union-supported city schools bureaucracy might collapse like the East German government at the end of Lives of Others--and angered that Wells would even talk to the Green Dot charter people (in front of U.S. Education Secretary Spellings, no less)-- the school district's bureaucratic blob immediately and crudely retaliated against him by trumping up charges ...
So far this story sounds like a made-for-tv movie about the gutsy principal who bucks the viciously hide-bound establishment and arouses dedicated teachers to a bold experiment to help the kids. If Green Dot achieves the kind of results they've achieved with their other Los Angeles high-need schools, the movie will have a happy ending.