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A new public, state-run STEM school proposed for Los Angeles wins support from two county supervisors but is opposed by two LAUSD board members

Sarah Favot | August 18, 2017

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State Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-San Fernando, has proposed legislation that would establish a state-run STEM school in Los Angeles. (Courtesy: Raul Bocanegra’s office)


A battle over a state-run public STEM school proposed for Los Angeles is heating up with two votes scheduled for Tuesday. Two members of the LA County Board of Supervisors support the school, while two LA Unified school board members say LA is “already addressing the need for STEM education.”

Legislation to establish the school was proposed by state Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-San Fernando. Bocanegra has said the school would focus on teaching science, technology, engineering, and math to students from low-income and ethnically diverse communities. He is proposing that it be located in downtown Los Angeles and would serve 800 students in grades 6 through 12.

LA County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn are requesting that the county board send a letter of support of the bill to Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators representing Los Angeles.

“While many high-quality public school options exist within the County, including STEM magnets, the County lacks a world-class public STEM school that prepares underrepresented students for advanced study in STEM fields,” Ridley-Thomas and Hahn wrote in the motion. “…This California STEM School would give underrepresented students in the County opportunities to develop the knowledge necessary for a rapidly evolving world, and it would do so in a culturally competent manner to support a racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse student body.”

According to the county motion, California is expected to have the largest number of STEM jobs in the United States by 2022.

The LA County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether it will support the bill, AB 1217. The bill was advanced by the Senate Education Committee last month and will be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday.

But two LA Unified school board members are asking their colleagues to join them in opposing the school, saying the district has enough STEM programs.

In their resolution, George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson point to the district’s own STEM magnet programs — totaling 97 — as a reason to oppose the state-run school. They say those programs must be invested in and scaled up before more are added. Their resolution will come before the school board for a vote on Tuesday, but they may not find support. McKenna and Schmerelson are not part of the seven-member board’s new pro-reform majority.

School board member Monica Garcia, a consistent pro-reform vote on the board, said late Friday that she cannot support McKenna and Schmerelson’s resolution.

“I am excited about LA Unified, LA County, and the state of California identifying more ways to serve kids in Los Angeles, and I hope that whatever the legislation does it is about more resources to education and it is about more opportunities to accelerate our pace of growth in schools for kids. And I hope it’s about adults learning how to address the challenges of 2017 through 2030.”

Garcia added, “We all want to do better, and I applaud state and the legislators for engaging in this work. They will find there’s no one solution. There’s a lot of complexity. There’s a lot of good intention that needs to be followed up with adjustments over and over. But if it’s 800 kids downtown or in my area that would benefit from relationships and acceleration … We need more STEM. We need more STEAM. We need more partnerships in getting to great.”

The proposed school has already drawn the ire of teacher unions as well as the opposition of the state superintendent of public instruction, who would be in charge of overseeing the school. McKenna and Schmerelson’s opposition includes concerns that industry experts could be used “in lieu of credentialed teachers.” Both board members have been supported by the local teacher union.

However, the bill states that experts would be able to work alongside credentialed teachers: “… the state school may employ qualified university faculty and STEM professionals to work collaboratively with certificated teachers in instructing pupils. All core academic instruction shall be conducted under the direct supervision of a teacher with appropriate certification.” 

The school would be funded with philanthropic support from foundations, individuals, and STEM-industry partners, according to Bocanegra, in addition to state per pupil funding. The donors have not been specified.

McKenna and Schmerelson’s resolution also makes a general call for any philanthropic resources to be given to the district’s general fund.

School board President Ref Rodriguez said in an interview that he had concerns about the resolution, particularly about requiring that any philanthropic resources be directed to the district’s general fund, saying that could hurt the district by discouraging funders.

“I think there are issues with the resolution,” Rodriguez said. He also said the measures for accountability written into the legislation are slim.

Elmer Roldan, United Way of Greater Los Angeles’ director of education programs and policy, said in an email that United Way is supporting the state STEM school because it focuses on educating Latinos, African-Americans, and young women in the STEM fields.

“What concerns us about Resolution #18 is the Board’s ‘request that any philanthropic resources be given to the District’s general fund.’ Our budget analysis reports in the past three years found that LAUSD doesn’t always allocate its general fund dollars with strategic equity,” Roldan said. “There’s a great need to increase funding to our public education system, but we can’t continue to use the District’s budget challenges as an excuse for preventing the opening of schools that can benefit low-income students who strive for careers in high-demand STEM fields.”

Gaps in STEM education for minorities have been widely reported. Hispanics, African-Americans, and American Indians or Alaska Natives together make up 27 percent of the U.S. population age 21 and older but only 11 percent of the workers in the STEM workforce nationwide.

While the wording of the resolution regarding philanthropic resources is written broadly, McKenna said in an interview that he intended that it only applies to any money that would be given to the STEM school.

“If you really want to help us, help us improve what we already have,” he said. He believes that The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which funds education reform efforts, is behind the school.

“That is setting up an alternative option in opposition to existing options that are already here,” McKenna said. “They’re not inventing STEM programs. They’re competing.”

While saying “I would love their support,” McKenna said, “I don’t consider it support, I consider it competition.”

Through a spokesman, Bocanegra declined to comment on McKenna and Schmerelson’s resolution.

Eli Broad released a statement Friday: “The California State STEM School, inspired by state-sponsored public STEM schools across the country, will be dedicated to delivering an exceptional, public STEM education to students who reflect the diversity of Los Angeles,” Broad said. “The school will particularly seek to serve low-income students and other high-need students — including foster students, homeless students and English learners — to ensure they have the opportunity and skill set to become leaders in STEM fields. It will also strive to provide Los Angeles’ public school STEM teachers with opportunities to collaborate and pursue professional development. Should this school be established, we will be pleased to join others in supporting its development.”

In the resolution, McKenna and Schmerelson write about financial implications the district could suffer if students leave LA Unified to enroll in the STEM school, as state funding is based on enrollment.

“This means the school would be taking away much needed resources from other STEM schools in the district because of the zero-sum nature of education funding,” they wrote. “Municipal debt analysts have expressed concerns over the rapid proliferation and authorization of charter schools and the district’s already limited discretion to locally govern charter growth. AB 1217 would exacerbate these credit risks.”

They liken the school to a charter school, although it would not be a charter school because the school would be run by a nonprofit organization and overseen by a board, the governance model for many charter schools. The proposed STEM school would have some board members appointed by elected officials.

They also point to the unique authorizing process. Charter schools are authorized by local school districts, county offices of education, or the State Board of Education. To authorize this school, which is not a charter school, the legislature must pass the bill and the governor must sign it. The state has authorized three charter schools and three schools for deaf and blind students.

Great Public Schools Now, which is one of the nonprofit organizations that give money to the district for specific initiatives, could be affected by the broad wording of the resolution regarding philanthropic resources. The school board is also slated on Tuesday to vote on plans for two district schools that are receiving $1.5 million in grants from GPSN to replicate their success on another campus. A GPSN spokesman declined to comment on the STEM school resolution.

*This article has been updated to correct the GPSN grant amount and to add the bill’s position on using industry experts alongside credentialed teachers.

Disclosure: The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation funds Spanish translation on LA School Report en Español.

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