In a matter of weeks, the Los Angeles Unified School District embarks on an unpredictable but carefully manipulated course as the charter school movement’s golden boy, Steve Barr, and his handpicked, self-appointed Green Dot clique try to operate Locke High School during the regular school year. That idyllic summer school environment Steve Lopez described in his July 23 column won’t be there come September.
Despite the wishful thinking of Lopez and The Times editorial board, turning a large and tumultuous school over to educational upstarts who shill for powerful forces hostile to public education is not the solution to the academic disaster that was Locke. Times editorials are awash with glowing confidence about Locke under Green Dot and Barr. They are almost euphoric about Ramon Cortines, senior deputy superintendent, who, according to the editorial board, “sees charters ... as a template for improving schools districtwide.” The columnist goes on to say, “As long as leaders like Barr and Cortines engage in clear, honest talk instead of excuses and obfuscation, there’s hope ... .”
But improvement won’t materialize when the project is as full of holes as the Locke charter petition. Consider the “clear, honest talk” from Green Dot’s leader as found in the charter that the LAUSD board approved last September.
Lopez parrots the charter myth: “Teachers will have more say on curriculum and teaching methods, and the Green Dot model is thin on administration.” That decentralization fantasy is repeated throughout Green Dot’s charter, along with the buzz word “empowerment.” Teachers, students, parents -- Green Dot “empowers” them all.
But real control at Locke is held by Green Dot’s board of directors -- a self-perpetuating, non-elected board. Teachers and parents will be “consulted,” but there is very little teacher or parent empowerment. Although Locke may have an advisory board and teachers/parents may serve on it, Green Dot’s board is the ultimate governing body for Locke, not the faculty, not the parents.
No Locke teacher or Locke parent served on the Green Dot board at the time the charter was approved, yet the whole point of charters when they were created in this state in 1992 was that teachers and parents, working together, could create a charter. Instead, outsiders have muscled their way in, drawn by a pot of gold in the form of billions of taxpayer dollars set aside for K-12 education and a golden opportunity to advance their own social and economic agenda.
Lopez says Green Dot is “thin on administration.” He apparently hasn’t read the charter petition. Green Dot abounds in bureaucrats. There’s the “Green Dot Home Office,” the “Green Dot Management Team,” “Green Dot Corporate,” the “Charter School Management Corporation” and the Green Dot board of directors. The “Green Dot Home Office” is responsible for the majority of policy decisions at each school and for the school budget. Purchases not originally budgeted can’t be made without “Green Dot Corporate” approval. “Corporate” also does all purchasing, perhaps from some charter supply company.
Payroll? There won’t be any payroll snafu at Locke because that will be handled by the “Charter School Management Corporation.” Green Dot may be a “nonprofit” but the profiteers have found a way to make a buck. I’ll bet you’re wondering if there is a connection between Green Dot’s board of directors and the management corporation? Some enterprising Times reporter ought to track that one down.
Curriculum? In a charter petition that ran more than 150 pages, Locke’s gifted kids got one paragraph! Special ed students? In an exceedingly long section, Green Dot discusses problems that might arise for special ed students at a charter school. The suggestion is that special ed kids should probably go elsewhere. Could that be why some charter school Academic Performance Index scores seem higher than traditional schools?
For those of you who criticized our public schools for teaching recent immigrants in their native languages, note this. Locke will use “sheltered techniques” -- a euphemism for instruction in native languages -- for basic subjects. There are also separate Spanish-language courses for “native speakers.”
But the major fallacy in the Green Dot curriculum program is the requirement that every Locke student be on a college prep track for the University of California or California State University. Tucked away in a footnote is the escape clause: that such a curriculum “may not be realistic” for all students. You bet it isn’t. Vocational education, which is what many of these kids would like, was barely mentioned in the petition.
Cultural courses? Many courses in the arts will not be immediately offered. Anyone reading the document immediately notes the lack of music at Locke. In the past, the school was noted for its music program.
Although anti-public-education ranters were quick to attack brainwashing by liberal teachers in traditional schools and colleges, they remained silent when Barr announced his own form of brainwashing. In Locke’s social studies and history courses, “students will demonstrate an understanding of .... and a belief in the values of ... capitalism.” Now we know why the Gates, Broad, Annenberg and Walton families have poured so much money into the charter school movement. Since when do we require our students to demonstrate on a test that they not only understand but believe in capitalism? That ought to go over big among the economically depressed living in the Locke attendance area.
What about the kids? How will Barr and Green Dot “empower” them? The application cited two examples. They get to choose the school mascot (perhaps a clown as symbolic of this whole experiment) and get to decide what clubs and teams Locke will have. What will happen when a group of young Latinos try to form the Hugo Chavez Socialist Club? Or when other kids want to invite the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. to speak?
And finally we come to discipline. Gifted kids got one paragraph. Disciplinary problems get several pages. That’s a lot of space devoted to discipline in a charter organization that prides itself on not having such problems.
Lopez saw a school with 700 orderly kids who voluntarily chose to attend a summer session. What will he see in September when upward of 2,300 more involuntarily converge on the same campus? Barr talks about a group of small dispersed schools in his charter petition, but if Lopez is right, all those dispersed schools and kids will be located on the main Locke campus.
Perhaps Barr has a way of pruning the enrollment down to a manageable number. Lopez says the average class size will fall from 40 to 28 students. How can that be when the school will have precisely the same number of teachers in September as last year? One way is to have fewer students on the campus.
Kids won’t be expelled or suspended for failure because Barr offers “creative credit” for those who fail. Just how “creative credit” meets the UC requirements isn’t explained. But for those who are “subversive” to administration or faculty, it’s detention! For defiance, disrespect or abuse of school authority, suspension.
Appeals are made to the Green Dot board of directors. What happened to “local control”? And those expelled can’t go to another Green Dot campus. That apparently means they go back to LAUSD.
That foreshadows how Barr intends to solve the discipline problem. There won’t be 3,000 students at Locke. Many kids will opt out, choosing to avoid those uniforms and the repressive tactics of the administration that Lopez trumpeted. Others will not be allowed entry into Locke, for one reason or another. If their parents won’t volunteer for 30 hours a school year, Locke won’t have to accept the kids. The LAUSD’s traditional schools will. And for those kids who do show up on campus, there will be an Iraq-type “surge” of security officers to maintain the peace.
Lopez and The Times editorial board have an obligation to bird-dog Green Dot during the coming year and to ask the right questions instead of playing cheerleader. Members of the LAUSD board have an obligation to go beyond the glowing reports that come from Barr and Green Dot and to have a contingency plan when they finally realize that Green Dot and Barr have failed.
The rest of us have an obligation to make sure both The Times and the school board do their jobs.
Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.