Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa campaigned for what a parents organization and members of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education call a “revolution” of the education system at a community meeting in Venice on August 12th.
The community forum at the Boys & Girls Club of Venice, which was organized by the Parent Revolution, an organization comprised of former Green Dot charter school officials and reform-minded parents of school-aged children, was designed to invite Westside residents to learn more about a proposal backed by the mayor that promises to bring academic reform to the nation’s second largest school district.
A plan written by LAUSD board Vice President Yolie Flores Aguilar called “Public School Choice: A New Way At LAUSD,” would allow independent operators, charter schools, private schools and even the school district to assume control of failing schools.
Those who back the plan say that the inflexibility of the teachers union coupled with the inertia of the bloated bureaucracy at LAUSD have prevented real reform for the 700,000 district students.
United Teachers Los Angeles is opposed to Flores Aguilar’s plan, which the union says amounts to the privatization of public schools.
A vote on the proposal was tabled last month following boisterous opposition from various unions, including UTLA. The school board is scheduled to vote on the plan Tuesday, August 25th.
At the Venice forum, Villaraigosa said that the teachers union was only one of the biggest impediments to academic reform in the school district.
“It’s the whole system,” he said. “But they are one of the biggest obstacles to reform, the most powerful defenders of the status quo and I think the most regressive teachers union in the United States,” the mayor said.
Villaraigosa stressed that he was not anti-union.
“I’ve worked with unions my whole life,” the mayor, who cited his 15 years with the labor movement and his work as a labor organizer for UTLA, reminded the audience. “There’s no more important component to the education process than teachers, and we want teachers to have a voice in curriculum along with parents and principals, not by themselves, but everybody working together.”
A.J. Duffy, president of UTLA, objected to the characterization of the union as an obstacle to academic progress.
“We want to work with the district to make the schools that are failing better,” he said.
Duffy pointed out the relationship between Green Dot and the Parent Revolution, saying that Ben Austin, who worked for Villaraigosa during his first term as mayor, heads the parent group and is a former executive of the charter school operation.
“There’s a direct line between the two groups,” he said. “The Parent Revolution is bought and paid for by Green Dot.”
Parents from Del Rey, Mar Vista and Venice came to hear the mayor speak and to offer their thoughts on what changes need to be made at LAUSD. Members of the Parents Revolution, many of whom have children at Walgrove Elementary School in Mar Vista, have signed a petition demanding that LAUSD transform their schools from what many consider to be failing institutions into high quality schools.
Duffy noted that Villaraigosa also operates the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, an educational reform model comprised of LAUSD schools designed to improve student achievement, and in June, teachers at eight of the schools issued “no confidence” votes to the partnership.
Local parents who support the public option feel that Austin’s group offers them the opportunity to play a much more vocal and hands-on role in the children’s academic lives.
“I joined the Parent Revolution because it is a voice for parents,” said Venice resident Claudia Trevizan, whose daughter is in second grade at Walgrove Elementary School. “It seems like every other group at LAUSD has a union or a voice, and this is an organization that can help us change the way our children are being taught.”
Supporters of Flores Aguilar’s plan say that ongoing reform movements in the district would not be adversely affected, such as the autonomy effort in Westchester that has been underway for two years. The local control plan has had its ups and downs, and Green Dot Chief Executive Officer Marco Petruzzi says that Westchester schools could benefit from public option.
“Westchester is a little stagnated right now, but now people could come in with another proposal on the table and put a little pressure on them. And in a few years if Westchester is getting nowhere, people might say, ‘Enough of this, we’re not getting anywhere,’” said Petruzzi.
Mark Twain Elementary School Principal Ra™l Fernandez says there are areas of the public choice plan that can be beneficial to students, teachers, parents and school administrators.
“I agree with anything that could be successful for all of the schools,” said Fernandez, who attended the Venice meeting.
Fernandez recognizes that his school is not performing to the level that he, his teachers and the parents of the students at the middle school aspire to, but it has made significant progress recently.
“We had one of the largest gains in our API (Academic Performance Index) score this year,” said the principal, whose school jumped from 608 to 653.
The API benchmark, which is the barometer used to rate academic performance and progress of individual schools in California, is 800.
Duffy said that it would be counterproductive to allow the district or an independent operator the opportunity to take over a school like Mark Twain that has made progress but has not achieved the academic standards that other local schools have.
“We don’t need to take over schools that are improving,” the union president said. “We need to help them sustain the gains that have been made.”
Fernandez also hopes that even though Mark Twain is still far below achieving large-scale academic success, parents and the leaders behind the public choice option would take note of the recent improved test scores and not classify it as a “failing school.”
Mark Ruvelson, whose daughters will attend Walgrove Elementary in the fall, came to the meeting to learn more about the school plan.
“I want to learn how I can get the best education out of public schools for my two daughters,” he said. “My wife and I want to find out what we can do to be a part of this process.”
Ruvelson said that he and his wife were concerned about the quality of education that their children might receive in the near future.
“I’m looking six, seven years down the road and saying to myself, ‘What’s it going to be like at Mark Twain,’ where I haven’t heard many good things about,” he said.
After the meeting, the mayor said there was one important difference in the Flores Aguilar proposal that could make this new initiative successful.
“Accountability,” Villaraigosa said. “This is about giving parents the choices that will force schools to improve or close down.”
LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who represents Mar Vista, Venice, Playa del Rey, Westchester and Del Rey, did not return calls for comment as of Argonaut press time.