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With Reform Fervor in the Air, Local School Board Elections See Record Outside Spending

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This year, huge amounts of money and passion are flowing down the ballot into the school board elections -- part of an all-out war over public school reform. And as Dina Demetrius reports, some of the "troops" don't even live here.


Dina Demetrius: At first glance, this Crenshaw neighborhood seems orderly and peaceful. But the heart of this community -- Crenshaw High School -- has been a scene of academic upheaval and chaos for many years. And L.A.'s school board has decided enough is enough, pushing through a massive transformation of the school. At the same time, L.A. school board elections have become a national cause -- and depending on who wins a seat -- the sweeping changes that have suddenly descended on this local school could be a sign of things to come here in L.A., and elsewhere.

L. Remon Corley/Principal, Crenshaw High School: Here at Crenshaw, there is a rich legacy of success. And somewhere along the line, the school veered off that pathway.

Demetrius: In one of L.A. Unified's most famous -- and now famously failing -- high schools, a new sheriff is in town, the sixth in seven years.

Corley: The list is long of business success, success in medicine, and in law and athletics -- I mean, a rich history of success. But somehow that legacy has not been upheld. It is my goal in my time here to help the school to work with the community to ensure we reclaim that legacy.

Demetrius: Principal Remon Corley has only been on the job since September, but walks the hallways with a clear purpose -- to help Crenshaw high turn the corner from being the lowest ranked school in the district, to one where he says every student can go to college. But as students' test scores show -- he has his work cut out for him. Three percent are at grade level for math. Seventeen percent are at grade level for English.

Demetrius: In a word, what is your reaction to that?

Corley: That's criminal. I think it's unfair, and I think students are leaving here at a severe disadvantage. If we are only 3 percent proficient in mathematics and 17 in English language arts, then we have to do something about that, because I truly believe that's not a reflection of what our students are capable of doing.

Demetrius: In January, the LAUSD board did do something: it voted unanimously to create three magnet schools within Crenshaw High. Starting next year, students will choose from three career themes: business and technology, science/engineering/math and medicine, or visual and performing arts. Corley says the change will mean more focused teaching and more money for the school.

Corley: And right now it's an additional $14 per student, and then the themes enable us to target outside funding.

Demetrius: School reformers loved it. But a number of Crenshaw parents, teachers, and union officials protested the change, accusing the district of creating more disruption for students, and leaving parents and school officials out of the decision-making.

Eunice Grigsby/Crenshaw High Graduate: I've always been there on the ground fighting.

Demetrius: Eunice Grigsby is a Crenshaw grad herself and mother of three graduates, with her youngest now in 11th grade. She was vocal in her opposition to the district's vote.

Grigsby: It was kind of frightening as a parent to know that, okay, my kid is at this school, and now we're getting ready to make a whole other change from all the changes we had before -- with all the different principals, all the different administration, all the different teachers that had to leave because of cutbacks.

Demetrius: Eunice says progress was being made to get Crenshaw back on track despite the upheaval of the last several years. But the school's change to the magnet program now means all teachers and the principal have to reapply for their jobs -- more potential upheaval. But Corley says the plan makes sense, even though he could lose his job.

Corley: I think the superintendent was pretty clear about his intent in making this move, and that is that progress wasn't happening fast enough. There were some gains. We could have continued to make slow progress, but what about the students who we're not benefiting right now? Because it's a great Crenshaw 5 years from now, but that won't benefit students at Crenshaw today. So something needed to happen so that we could accelerate that change.

Demetrius: This debate at Crenshaw High between slower, steady progress on one hand, and sweeping transformation on the other, is at the heart of how to fix failing schools. And that's why so much focus -- and much money -- has been poured into this school board election: more than $3 million, with a hefty $1 million alone coming from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. You might wonder why the mayor of New York cares so much about a school board election on the opposite coast. Well, it puts muscle behind a nationwide reform agenda he favors -- everything from installing charter and magnet schools, to restructuring how teachers get evaluated.

Kate Anderson is a mother of twins in the school system and former political aide to congressman Henry Waxman. She's challenging incumbent Steve Zimmer in District 4 -- one of three open seats on the 7-member LAUSD board, which determines policies and changes. Reformers worry superintendent John Deasy's job is in jeopardy. He's been leading aggressive reform efforts since taking the position two years ago. So reform coalitions are doing their best to make sure the post-election board is firmly on his side. Anderson puts herself in the Deasy camp.

Kate Anderson/LAUSD District 4 Candidate: I think the seniority system is the big crux of the problem. We need to be making smart decisions about who's in front of our kids. Right now, 99 percent of our teachers are judged effective. We give teachers tenure after only two years. I think that's too short a time to meaningfully evaluate teachers.

Demetrius: So she's getting a chunk of that Bloomberg money through a super PAC fund. Restructuring the teacher tenure system is Anderson's main platform. She's also in favor of laws that allow parents to take over failing schools. And all that has put her in the crosshairs of the union, United Teachers Los Angeles. So she has no qualms about accepting campaign money from New York's mayor or anyone else who shares her opinion.

Anderson: The outside money that is coming in, I view as part of this larger civic community of people coming together saying we want to demand change on behalf of our kids. And frankly, given how much money UTLA is spending to defeat me, they've sent out some really ugly mailers about me...

Steve Zimmer/LAUSD District 4 Board Member: This race has become controversial because there's a very narrow anti-labor, anti-union, anti-public sector agenda that's trying to buy a school board seat. And they've put an unprecedented amount of outside money into taking out a successful incumbent. That's why it's become so controversial.

Demetrius: Steve Zimmer, an LAUSD teacher for 17 years, is backed by UTLA. He says he supports Deasy's reform policies but acts as a necessary bridge to the teacher's union.

Zimmer: My role has been to push both UTLA and our other labor unions to put kids first. There had to be somebody who had the bridge to organized labor who could be the architect of those shared sacrifice agreements. We were able through employees giving back an unprecedented, never-seen-before ways, to be able to save thousands of jobs, to maintain most programs during the midst of this crisis. But to do it by building unlikely coalitions, and not waging holy wars.

Demetrius: One of those battlegrounds was a new teacher evaluation agreement last fall. How to decide which teachers are good enough to teach is a hotly contested issue nationally. And those negotiations between LAUSD and the union were hard-fought.

Zimmer: We've gotten a transformational agreement on teacher training, support, and evaluation. We got it without a strike, without job actions, and without any disruption to our students' schedule, and I'm very proud of that record.

Warren Fletcher/President, UTLA: Teachers are where the rubber hits the road.

Demetrius: Warren Fletcher is the president of UTLA and has been a high school teacher for three decades.

Fletcher: What we do not want to see is we do not want to see a situation where everything is reduced down to where there's a flat number system, and if you don't reach that flat number threshold, then that person has to leave even if they are a highly gifted teacher in every other way.

Demetrius: Diane Ravitch is a nationally-recognized analyst and historian in education at New York University. Her upcoming book, "Reign of Error," outlines the risks of what she says is the corporate reform movement.

Diane Ravitch/Education Historian, NYU: These so-called reformers, their first instinct is to blame the teachers, and that makes it hard to even recruit new teachers because they say, "Why would I go to a failing school? Why would I want to go to a school where within a year I'll be called a failing teacher?"

Demetrius: That question has been asked more and more, educators say, because support for teachers is not funded. They also say part of that failure is because students are coming from impoverished homes. But with California ranking 49th in the country on school spending, the last several years have seen massive budget cuts that have left scars in the classrooms.

Ravitch: You cannot reform schools at the same time that you're increasing class sizes to 30, 35 and 40 kids. That is ridiculous. So when people talk about reform, the first thing they should look to is the research. The research says early childhood education works. Reduced class sizes work. Having experienced and well-qualified teachers is very important.

Demetrius: And back at Crenshaw -- where teachers will find out in March if they'll keep their jobs -- Principal Corley is still waiting to hear about his. If he stays, Corley says he'll work to ensure steady progress through the sweeping change that is coming to this school.

Corley: Do I believe this change is automatically going to transform everything at Crenshaw? No, not in and of itself. But we need to do things today so that five years from now we're not having these same discussions.

Demetrius: And at the heart of all the politics and rhetoric that mark these school board elections is a parent's dream of a bright future for her child.

Grigsby: When I hear Crenshaw, I hear me. So if -- if it gets lost, I get lost. So we can't get lost. I can't give up, that's my community. So why would I -- I'm not leaving, I'm staying for generations after mine until I just can't do it anymore. So the hope is not dead, the dream is still alive, and we're dreaming bigger and better for our future.

Demetrius: But for Los Angeles voters, the question remains: how do we get there? I'm Dina Demetrius, for SoCal Connected.

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