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A Great Divide: The Election Fight for California’s Schools

11:25 am in Charter schools, Public education by Gary Cohn

An election campaign now being fought almost completely out of public view could radically alter the way California’s school children are taught. If Marshall Tuck unseats incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the state’s public education system could become a laboratory for a movement that prizes privatization and places a high value on student test scores over traditional instruction. The contrasts between the two top contenders in the nonpartisan race could not be more dramatic – nor could the stakes for the country’s largest education system.

The 40-year-old Tuck is a Harvard Business School graduate who has worked as an investment banker for Salomon Brothers and as an executive at Model N, a revenue-management software company. He is a former president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school operation in Los Angeles, and later served as the first head of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools — former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s controversial education nonprofit that tried to improve 17 low-performing public schools, with mixed results

Tuck’s candidacy is supported by the same mix of wealthy education privatizers, Silicon Valley and entertainment money, hedge fund and real estate interests that backed privatization candidates in the 2013 Los Angeles Unified School District school board election — when billionaire businessmen such as Eli Broad and Michael Bloomberg gave large campaign contributions to an unsuccessful effort to defeat board member Steve Zimmer. (The Broad Residency, an education management program operated by the Broad Foundation, lists Tuck as an alumnus.)

Tuck is also supported by former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, a polarizing figure who was once believed to be a potential contender for Torlakson’s job. Like Rhee, Tuck supports using student test scores as a way of evaluating individual teachers’ performances. Critics of this policy, which is favored by school privatizers, claim that it forces classroom instructors to “teach to the test” and scrap curriculum that is not seen as reaping high student test scores.


The Incumbent: Tom Torlakson

“The contest between Mr. Tuck and Superintendent Torlakson couldn’t be starker in every way,” says Steve Zimmer. “Superintendent Torlakson is a lifetime public servant. He’s an educator, he’s a legislator and he’s kind of a [policy] wonk. In contrast, Mr. Tuck is a business man. I’m not sure there’s anybody more engaged at running schools like a business.”

In conversation Tuck presents an affable, conciliatory persona and seems at pains to play down differences between the movement he represents and the educators who oppose it through their unions, several of which are financial supporters of Capital & Main.

“There’s no question that the teachers union has a lot of influence on the state, but I think they get too much negative credit for all the problems,” Tuck tells Capital & Main during a lengthy interview at his bare-bones campaign office on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Then, almost in mid-sentence, he appears to change his mind about teachers unions. “Right now,” he continues, “their seat at the table is too big and they have too much influence over education policy.”

Tuck has spent almost no time as a classroom instructor, while the 64-year-old Torlakson is a veteran science teacher and track coach. Torlakson, who is still a teacher on leave from Contra Costa County’s Mount Diablo Unified School District, says he usually teaches one community college course every year. He was elected as California’s 27th State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2010 after serving in the state legislature. The two men also face longshot candidate Lydia Gutierrez, who lost a bid for superintendent in the 2010 primary. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the June primary vote, a runoff election between the two frontrunners will take place in November.

Torlakson has received substantial financial support from unions and celebrates his closeness with teachers. “I’m happy to be aligned with teachers – classroom teachers know me and trust me,” he says in a telephone interview.

A significant indication of what a future Tuck administration’s relations with teachers might look like can be found in his embrace of a lawsuit that seeks to erase nearly a century of teacher job protections, including seniority rights. The lawsuit, Vergara v. California, is currently being tried in Los Angeles Superior Court and names Torlakson as a defendant.

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“Unfathomable”: Why Is One Commission Trying to Close California’s Largest Public College?

1:10 pm in Public education by Gary Cohn

To appreciate the value of a community college education, consider the transformation of Shanell Williams.

By the time she was a teenager, Williams was constantly getting into trouble on the streets of San Francisco’s Fillmore District. Her abuse of drugs and alcohol, along with a difficult family life, would lead her into the juvenile justice system, drug treatment centers and foster homes.

“I was a juvenile delinquent,” she admits.

Today Williams, now 29, hardly resembles that troubled youth. She is a hard-working student at City College of San Francisco, taking urban studies courses and hoping to transfer to Stanford University or the University of California at Berkeley. She has served as president of the student council at CCSF’s Ocean campus and was elected to be the student representative on CCSF’s Board of Trustees.Illustration: Lalo Alcaraz

“Community college has helped give me a pathway to higher education,” she says.

That pathway may soon be closing. A little-known but powerful organization called the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) has announced plans to revoke CCSF’s accreditation on July 31, 2014, subject to appeals and a one-year review. The loss of accreditation would certainly mean that CCSF, which has about 80,000 students and is California’s largest public college, would be forced to close – possibly during its 80th anniversary. Students at unaccredited colleges are not eligible for student loans or other types of financial aid through government agencies.

The decision to impose sanctions on CCSF has set in motion a fierce yearlong struggle that is being played out on its 11 campuses, in hearing rooms in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and in San Francisco courtrooms. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, the California Federation of Teachers and the Save CCSF Coalition have filed lawsuits alleging that ACCJC allowed its advocacy and political bias to prejudice its evaluation of college accreditation standards. (Note: The California Federation of Teachers is a financial supporter of Capital & Main.)

In Sacramento, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee has approved a request to audit the ACCJC. In Washington, a federal Department of Education staff report has criticized the ACCJC for not including enough faculty members on its accrediting team.

Next week in San Francisco, a state superior court judge will hear a motion from Herrera’s office seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the ACCJC from revoking CCSF’s accreditation status in July. The City Attorney’s office says that the accrediting body has been using stalling tactics and failing to turn over records. The hearing is scheduled for the day after Christmas.

In an interview with Capital & Main, Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart calls the ACCJC a “rogue agency that is accountable to no-one,” adding that its efforts to revoke CCSF’s accreditation status represent an “unconscionable” move that would devastate tens of thousands of poor and working class students.

“The people served by City College are the most economically in need of a boost,” says Stewart. “Community colleges provide that at an affordable price.”

Stewart says, and the lawsuit filed by the City Attorney alleges, that the accrediting agency took the unfair and unusual step of moving to sanction CCSF and revoke its accreditation because the college’s trustees, faculty and students opposed the ACCJC’s efforts to reshape the mission of California’s community colleges. The ACCJC has been a leading proponent of policies that would focus on degree completion to the exclusion of remedial courses, such as those that teach English as a second language to immigrants.

The lawsuit says that the ACCJC strongly supported state legislation to limit certain low-income students’ eligibility for fee waivers to those identified with a specific degree or certificate. The provision was later removed from the legislation at the urging of advocates for open education, including many members of the CCSF community. At the same time this dispute was raging, the ACCJC was in the process of evaluating CCSF.

Stewart says that it was “highly questionable” for the accrediting agency to become so heavily involved in the legislative fight at the same time when it was supposedly acting as a neutral judge of the college’s academic standards.

“The process is really tainted here,” she says. “It appears to us this was about retaliation for political views.”

Barbara A. Beno, the ACCJC’s president, declined through an aide to be interviewed for this article. A statement on its web site said the ACCJC believes the San Francisco City attorney’s lawsuit and injunction request  are without merit:

ACCJC has confidence in our judiciary to rule appropriately on the City Attorney’s motion. ACCJC will resist any efforts by any third party, including the City Attorney of San Francisco, to interfere with its internal processes, including those processes that relate to the CCSF decision.

Beno’s office later replied to queries about its sanctioning CCSF with a lengthy email attributed to ACCJS’s president. In that statement, Beno said:

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Why Charter Schools Are Tearing Public Campuses Apart

8:04 am in Charter schools, Public education by Gary Cohn

School Library

Co-location allows charter schools to further drain the resources of public schools.

For more than 30 years each, Cheryl Smith-Vincent and Cheryl Ortega have shared a passion for teaching public school in Southern California. Smith-Vincent teaches third grade at Miles Avenue Elementary School in Huntington Park; before retiring, Ortega taught kindergarten at Logan Street Elementary School in Echo Park. Both women have been jolted by experiences with a little-known statewide policy that requires traditional public schools to share their facilities with charter schools. Ortega says she has seen charter-school children warned against greeting non-charter students who attend the same campus. Smith-Vincent reports that she and her students were pushed out of their classroom prior to a round of important student tests – just to accommodate a charter school that needed the space.

“It was extremely disruptive,” Smith-Vincent says of the incident.

The practice of housing a traditional public school and a charter school on the same campus is known as “co-location.” Charters are publicly funded yet independently operated, and are intended to encourage innovation and improve student performance. Under Proposition 39, a school-funding ballot initiative adopted by California voters in 2000, charter schools were given the right to use empty classrooms and share in underutilized public school facilities.

Proponents of the measure, including the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), claim that it ensures that all public school students, including those enrolled in charter schools, share equally in school district facilities. But critics contend that co-locating siphons key resources from the already-underfunded traditional public schools, depriving students of playground space, library time and other resources.

“One of the difficult things about having a charter school co-located on a district public school campus is that . . . the two schools end up competing for those things that are necessary to provide a quality education for the students,” says Robin Potash, an elementary school teacher and chair of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) Proposition 39 Committee. “That includes competing for the same students.”

“We’ve collected lots of anecdotal stories [about] the inequitable use of space, disparity of resources, use of school personnel, lack of services for special education students and English-language learners, and the meals that are provided – pre-packaged versus hot gourmet,” Potash continues. Her last point refers to some charter students receiving their lunches from Whole Foods.

Though the practice of co-location is little known to the general public, it is not uncommon in California. Co-locations exist or have been approved in San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego and in Kern County in California’s Central Valley. In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) alone, there are 65 co-locations involving traditional public schools and charters, with the district’s charter schools typically requesting space for about 25,000 students to be co-located.

“That’s the equivalent of finding space for the entire Pasadena Unified School District,” says Jose Cole-Gutierrez, LAUSD’s director of charter schools.

It’s not easy to house two separate schools on the same campus and it can be particularly difficult when the schools have separate and disparate cultures, educational philosophies and traditions. Charter school students sometimes wear uniforms, traditional public school students do not. Sometimes all of the students come from the neighborhood, other times many of the charter’s students are from different parts of Los Angeles. Sometimes the administrators at the schools cooperate; other times they compete. To be sure, some co-locations operate smoothly, with teachers, administrators and parents working together to minimize disruptions, although co-locations have also become controversial in New York City, for similar reasons as in California.

Ricardo Soto, the CCSA’s senior vice president for legal advocacy and general counsel, defends co-locations as a way to ensure that all public school students have access to facilities. He says that in many cases co-location makes sense because of declining enrollment in traditional public schools and increasing enrollment in charters.

Asked whether the co-locations set up a two-tier system, Soto says that “too often [traditional public schools] try to cordon off students from the charter school . . . Our experience is that charter school students at [co-location] sites tend to get the leftover space,” and that their access to amenities such as bathrooms, playgrounds and cafeterias is an “afterthought.”

News that a charter school is going to be sharing a traditional public school campus often provokes protests and hard feelings. Last year the Silver Lake community became divided after the Citizens of the World Charter was allowed to share the campus of the Micheltorena Elementary School.

“It was terrible,” says Kurt Bier, the father of a student at Micheltorena. “People didn’t want the charter to co-locate because it would draw resources away from students [already] attending Micheltorena. It divided the community. It pitted people against each other.”

The two schools are not scheduled to share space this fall, with Citizens of the World acquiring co-location status at Stoner Avenue Elementary School in Culver City.

This past June, parents and teachers at Boyle Heights’ Lorena Street Elementary School held a protest after it was announced that Extera Public Schools, a charter operation, would be sharing the campus for 2013-2014. The announcement was made five days before the end of the last school year, and protesters said this didn’t leave enough time for rational planning of how to share the space.

Extera was founded by former Hollywood talent agent Tom Strickler and is headed by veteran LAUSD educator Jim Kennedy; one of its stated goals is to introduce children to nature.

Eddie Rivas has taught at Breed Street Elementary School for the past three years, the last two of which was shared with an Extera charter. His fears of co-locations creating two-tiered systems are based on experience.

“The charter kids sense they are better than the public school kids,” says Rivas. “I’ll say good morning to charter school kids. They don’t know if it’s okay to say hello to me. The message is that they are better than us.”

Rivas’ worries are well-founded, according to Cheryl Ortega.

“I was walking my children up the ramp to go to recess and we were passing by the Gabriella campus,” says Ortega, recalling an incident she witnessed at Logan Elementary when she was subbing at the school not long after her retirement. Logan shares its campus with Gabriella Charter School under a lease agreement.

One of my little girls called out to a little girl [from the charter]. A teacher told the little girl in the charter to come away and said, ‘We don’t talk to Logan.’ It was as sad as could be. They are telling children they can’t mix or even speak to each other!

Others say the problems of co-location involve more than snobbery.

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