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LAUSD Board Elections: A School Divided

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The LAUSD board elections this week reminded me again -- uneasily -- of two things: that big-donor money from everywhere has officially invaded what used to be the sleepiest of local elections, and that public schools are the last big battleground where a fight for the value of the common good is still being waged. With the exception of first responders like military, police, and fire departments, tax-supported institutions meant to serve all of us equally have been downsized, outsourced, or demonized. Public employee unions in bankrupt cities are expected to give back their pensions; government itself as an instrument of good or as an equalizing force has been under attack for decades now. Public schools have been caught up in the conservative backlash for a long time, to the point where the charter-school movement is looking to move once and for all from the margin of "choice" to the centers of educational power, like LAUSD's school board. It wants nothing less than revolution.

Of course that takes money, and thanks to the spirit of Citizens United and the general trend of corporate governance these days, the charter movement's got that too. Ref Rodriguez, the charter advocate who beat incumbent Bennett Kayser in District 5, is sounding a somewhat conciliatory tone so far, suggesting that there might be some room for some kind of ideological compromise between the two camps. But I frankly don't see any way that a movement spearheaded by wealthy white folks could ultimately effect equality and common good in schools, or even have it as a primary goal. Rhetoric is one thing, reality is another. As a city and as a country, we have too long and sordid a history of white flight -- public school flight is always part of it -- for the pro-equality rhetoric on the charter side to feel plausible. Anything is possible, I suppose, but the odds of history reversing itself are zero to none.

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The real question for me has always been, how did we get to this charter/public school divide? Charters, after all, are public schools. True, they trade a certain amount of funding and district oversight for autonomy, which means they can set their own direction and hire non-union teachers, which they most frequently do. But I've always thought of charters as a district experiment, a kind of laboratory where professionals identify best practices and incorporate them into public schools. But that hasn't happened. What's developed instead is a two-tier system that feels as economic and cultural as it is educational -- an antagonistic, winner/loser divide between the 99 and the 1 percent. I know that lots of working-class and poor people use charters, of course. They have every right to. But their motives are different. As a group, they aren't interested in privatizing the educational system or making it more student-exclusive in the way that the moneyed interests that fund the charter school movement are. In the midst of urban chaos, poor and colored parents are more concerned with securing immediate opportunities for their kids than with promoting a culture of individual choice that sees education less as a tradition of common good than as a quality "product" or an outcome.

Maybe we can blame the big school districts for this divide, for giving away too much oversight and ending up with an in-house entity that's flourished in its own hothouse and now literally wants more room to grow. As we know, districts have also done a lousy job with incorporating reform -- look at magnet schools. Magnets were, and still are, federally funded tools for desegregation meant to help restore the tenuous racial balance upended by white flight. As small schools-within-schools with specific academic focus -- science, humanities, performing arts -- they wound up being an educational model that was often successful, and sought after. Today we have lots of magnets, but their successes haven't been replicated in the public schools at large. As for the goal of maintaining racial balance, that's all but disappeared from the discussion, with the more popular magnets often conflated with charters. And no wonder -- the LAUSD brochures describing magnet schools describe them as "Choices." That's not ironic, that's intentional.

All this said, I'm not sure the local public school/charter battleground will change much with the addition of Ref Rodriguez. Tamar Galatzan, another incumbent and a staunch charter supporter who represented the Valley, was defeated by the more pro-traditional school candidate Scott Schmerelson. Call this particular battle a draw. But the war will almost certainly continue, and the old-fashioned but still very relevant notion of public education will continue to fight for its life.

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