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LAUSD candidates agree (!) on value of public charter schools

Jamie Alter Lynton | May 15, 2014

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The latest forum for candidates running in a special election to fill the vacant seat in South LA’s District 1 produced unexpected agreement last night on some of the most volatile issues in public education.

The four contenders who participated — Alex JohnsonRachel JohnsonGenethia Hudley-Hayes and George McKenna — saw eye to eye on nearly every core issue involving charter schools, including those that have been particularly contentious for the Los Angeles Unified school board.

The consensus could be partially attributed to catering to the crowd: the event was sponsored by CCSA Families, an advocacy group affiliated with the California Charter School Association, and more than 200 parents and teachers, many of whom were wearing CCSA Families t-shirts, filled the room at at Mount Moriah Baptist Church.

But the area has long been plagued with low-performing schools in a high-needs population, and charters have proven popular with parents.

Even the sole candidate endorsed by the teacher’s union, Rachel Johnson, was unabashed in her support of charters – despite the union’s fierce criticism.

“We [must] move past that adversarial ‘oh, the charter schools are taking us over’ idea” she said. “No. Charter schools are educating our students.”

Seven candidates are competing in the June 3 special election. The four last night agreed that charter schools are higher performing than traditional public schools and should be used as models; that there should be no cap or limit on charter growth; that ‘co-location’ between public charter schools and traditional public schools should be supported.

Perhaps most surprising was consensus that charter school operators should be allowed to takeover failing traditional school – a privilege that the board stripped from charter operators in its agreement with the teachers union three years ago.

The event was marked by polite restraint and only the slightest sign of criticism.

“We can’t keep doing the same old things that we were doing [30 years ago],” Alex Johnson, an aide to County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, said to much applause. “We just can’t. It is ineffective, and it is unacceptable and our children deserve change here and now.” Two of his opponents, McKenna, and Hudley-Hayes are more than twice his age, 33, and have been involved with LAUSD for decades.

If there were buzzwords of the evening, they were “accountability,” mentioned by every candidate numerous times; “choice” and “scale.”

“If they (charter schools) are doing a better job, we need to figure out what they are doing, find out what can be brought up to scale,” said Hudley-Hayes.

In a rare divergence, McKenna, a recently retired administrator, broke rank with the others on the question of his support of current LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy. While his three adversaries voiced support for Deasy, McKenna said the issue of whether the superintendent is doing a good job and whether he would support re-opening Deasy’s contract, “is a question I have no interest in, whether the superintendent’s contract is reopened or not.”

McKenna later told LA School Report that as a private citizen, he doesn’t “know enough about the Superintendent’s performance” to evaluate him and refused numerous times when pressed to answer.

McKenna also got the closest to touching controversy by bringing up teacher and principal effectiveness, the third rail of education.

“We cannot have effective schools if we don’t have effective teachers…the performance of the schools is based on the teachers and the most critical person in any school is the principal,” he said. “You cannot have an effective school with an ineffective principal.“

The room expressed approval of his position, and that might have been because the teacher’s union, a vocal opponent to evaluations and charter growth in general, was not represented in the crowd or on the stage.

Two other candidates endorsed by UTLA did not appear at all: according to a CCSA staff member, Sherlett Hendy-Newbill canceled due to a scheduling conflict, and Hattie McFrazier,  did not respond to the invitation.  Omarosa Manigault canceled due to a last minute illness.

Graciela Martinez and Himelda Gonzalez, both mothers at a charter school in South LA, said they came to the forum unsure whom they would support.

They went home saying they would vote for McKenna, impressed with his views on accountability of principals.

“The principal is the most important,” said Martinez, pausing to find the right phrase in English. “if the head is not working, the school is not working.”

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