The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted 6-1 Tuesday, August 25th to approve the “school choice” initiative at one of the most contentious meetings of the school year.

A standing-room-only audience watched and waited for several hours while the board members considered a variety of amendments to make the controversial school plan more palatable to a few of its members who had been critical of the initiative leading up to the vote.

The motion, which was put forth by Yolie Flores Aguilar, the board’s vice president, would open up 250 schools, including 50 new ones, to charters and other entities.

Board member Steve Zimmer, who represents District 4, which includes Mar Vista, Westchester, Del Rey and Venice, voted in favor of the school choice plan.

The passage of the resolution will now allow charter schools, independent school operators and even LAUSD to seek leadership of failing schools in the hope of improving student achievement. Although many LAUSD schools have made strides in recent years, the district’s dropout rate remains high, and several schools have consistently low Academic Performance Index (API) scores.

District officials anticipated an unusually large turnout of parents, supporters and dissenters of the motion, and extra security was called in at the district’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who publicly campaigned for the plan for several weeks throughout Los Angeles, spoke of the need for educational reform at a press conference the day before the vote.

“Education is the civil rights issue of our time,” Villaraigosa, an ally of Flores Aguilar on this issue, told the audience. “This motion is an opportunity for the school board to forge a new path towards truly reforming our schools and I urge them to pass it.

“It is well past the time for making decisions based on what is good for adults. We have to start making decisions on what is best for our children.”

United Teachers Los Angeles and other groups dismissed the proposal as an attempt to privatize education, and furiously lobbied board members to vote against the proposal.

A.J. Duffy, the union’s president, told The Argonaut before the meeting that if Flores Aguilar’s motion was successful, the board could expect injunctions or lawsuits.

“If it does pass, it will be tied up in court,” Duffy vowed.

LAUSD Supt. Ramon Cortines, whom some felt had not been as vocal as Duffy and the mayor, encouraged all parties to find a common solution to the district’s problems.

“Students and families are demanding high quality schools,” Cortines said at his own press conference. “We share the same goal. We want all of our students to graduate prepared for college and careers. This is about what is best for our students. We have to work together.”

A contingent of parents from an organization called the Parent Revolution addressed the board, along with dozens of other speakers. Many members of the Parent Revolution, a group that was founded by board members of Green Dot Charter Schools, have children at Walgrove Elementary School and Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista.

Bill Ring, whose son and daughter graduated from Venice High School, said that he sympathized with many of the items in the school choice resolution, but was not convinced that it would address student achievement.

“In light of what has happened at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, I don’t see how anyone could have faith in the mayor (regarding student improvement),” Ring said.

Ring was referring to a recent report that found that teachers at eight out of nine schools in Villaraigosa’s educational reform model comprised of LAUSD schools designed to improve student achievement issued “no confidence” votes to the partnership in June.

Tanya Anton, a Venice parent whose daughter attended Walgrove Elementary last year, heard Villaraigosa speak at a community meeting in Venice sponsored by the Parent Revolution on August 12th, and said she did not receive the information about the resolution that she was seeking.

“It seemed very confusing and unfocused,” Anton said, adding that she also feels that the district has failed at creating an environment for student achievement. “I do support choice, but the timing of this is very interesting.”

Anton wanted to know why the school board decided to call for a vote on a topic this important in August, usually a time when families are vacationing.

Eric DeSobe, who is a member of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council’s education committee, sees merit with the school choice proposal.

“Speaking as an individual, I am excited about Ms. Aguilar’s proposal and its potential for improving student achievement across Los Angeles,” he said. “As it stands now, Del Rey schools perform at a level that doesn’t fall under the proposal’s scope related to program improvement schools because Del Rey’s elementary schools and middle school are great options for families.”

Ring said that he questioned the definition of what the school board calls “choice.”

“Authentic choice is more than what’s in this resolution,” Ring, an organizer on the Local District 3 Parent Community Advisory Council, asserted. “The real question is why did the district bargain behind closed doors with its bargaining units, instead of with the parents?”

Anton feels that many parents will ultimately not have the options that they believe they have, according to how the initial proposal was written.

“At the end of the day, the community within the footprint of the school will not have any say in the choice,” she said. “It will be up to the district.”

Cortines will have the ultimate authority to select the winning bids on who will take over a school.

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