Column

The battle over public education is raging, but it's immoral to use students as pawns

Nationally and locally, the war for control of public schools has escalated.

Betsy DeVos was confirmed as President Trump’s Education secretary Tuesday, despite having displayed a shocking lack of knowledge about public schools, and she’s a bigly billionaire champion of more school options for students and their parents.

It’s hard to argue against more options, but it’ll be interesting to see how the growth of charters impacts kids who don’t make the cut, and sad to watch their schools get left behind in the resource department. And if she pushes vouchers, it will be even more interesting to see how Americans react to having their tax dollars subsidize private schools, including religious education.

Now back to the front lines in Los Angeles.

“There’s a through line between the Betsy DeVos confirmation and what’s going on in L.A.,” UCLA education professor John Rogers said. “She and her family have used their vast wealth to manipulate the politics of Michigan education.”

In recent years, some of the wealthiest people in Los Angeles and beyond have spent millions of dollars in the hope of multiplying charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. State spending per pupil in California ranks shamefully low against national averages, but spending on L.A. Unified school board races is astronomical.

Last week, I wrote about a $1-million donation by former Mayor Dick Riordan, the chief financial backer of a student group that has attacked school board President Steve Zimmer in a negative ad campaign. Zimmer has been a supporter of some charters in a district that has dozens of them already, but his foes in the March election are seen as safer bets to expand the number.

I think guys like Riordan, philanthropist Eli Broad, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Walton family and all the other folks who think teacher unions are the enemy of better schools, have a right to that view and a right to spend their money in ways they think will benefit children.

Just as the teacher unions and their supporters have a right to fight back, if not with pockets that are always as deep as those of the millionaires and billionaires.

For the record, I’ve had bones to pick with both sides in this intractable war, and I’ve said more than once that while the adults are banging heads, the kids tend to get thrown under the bus, if you’ll pardon the expression.

But in Los Angeles, the kids have now joined the fight, or so it seems.

The name of the group that took credit for a nasty packet of cheap-shot political mailers attacking Zimmer was LA Students for Change. One mailer falsely accused Zimmer of being the force behind L.A. Unified’s iPad debacle, among other sins. As my colleague Howard Blume reported, one mailer looked suspiciously identical to the promo for a Netflix show called “Making a Murderer.”

When I asked Riordan about LA Students for Change, he told me they were connected to the California Charter Schools Assn. That group funnels tens of millions of dollars into campaigns and the coffers of like-minded independent expenditure groups.

The Charter School people bounced me around to various execs before one of them referred me to Shallman Communications in Los Angeles. So I called John Shallman, a longtime political consultant.

Shallman told me he came of age, politically, as a student activist, and he suggested to the California Charter Schools Assn. that it recruit some students and put them in charge of running a school board campaign.

“They liked the idea,” he said of the charter group.

Shallman said he suggested one of his staffers “take a leave and run this thing,” a characterization that brings into question whether LA Students for Change is actually student-run, as advertised on its website.

The staffer used Facebook to recruit staffers, Shallman said. About 18 high school students took the bait, along with a stipend of up to $500, and became members of a group that has met twice in the last month or so.

Initially, the LA Students for Change website had stock photos of kids who were not actually in the group, as did a mailer. They were stand-ins.

When I asked Shallman about this, he said parental approval hadn’t come through yet for the real kids, whose photos later replaced the fakes. I also asked to speak to the students themselves, and Shallman said it could take time for parental approval, although I’ve been invited to the next meeting.

Conveniently for the pro-charter forces, the students all turned out to think Zimmer is a bum, and it was time to go negative.

Or did they?

Students shared their concerns about LAUSD in a group discussion, Shallman said. They listed grievances about lack of extracurricular activities, educational support, and campus safety, among other things. 

Those are real issues, no doubt, and I give the students lots of credit for getting involved in the management of their schools.

But the explanations for the district’s shortcomings are long and complicated. So I have trouble understanding how the students quickly reached the conclusion that whatever ails LAUSD, Zimmer is the cause.

“He’s the president,” said Shallman, who added that students were involved in the design of the mailers and were quite happy with the way they turned out.

Those mailers, as I noted last week, are attributed to “LA Students for Change, Opposing Steve Zimmer for School Board 2017.” They would have you believe Zimmer fired good teachers while protecting bad ones, drove the district into the ground financially, and failed to root out child molesters. 

Zimmer’s actual record is mixed; he has supporters, he has critics.

But distorting that record is dastardly.

And using students as a front is immoral.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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