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Plans for state-run STEM school in downtown LA die as bill fails to win support

Sarah Favot | September 18, 2017

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State Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-San Fernando, with students from Pacoima Charter Elementary School. (Courtesy: Raul Bocanegra’s office)

A controversial bill that would have established California’s first state-run STEM school ran into a wall of opposition, including from a broad coalition of unions, and failed to gain enough support as the legislative session ended Friday. 

The bill, AB 1217, was authored by Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-San Fernando, and Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge. It would have created a grades 6 through 12 school in downtown Los Angeles teaching science, technology, engineering, and math to 800 low-income students and students of color, who are traditionally underrepresented in the STEM fields.

A spokesman for Bocanegra confirmed over the weekend that “the bill is essentially dead and will not be moving forward even once the legislature reconvenes next January.” Luis Sanchez said in an email that he could not comment on what the next steps would be but said Bocanegra “remains committed toward improving and creating educational opportunities for children in low-income and working-class communities, many of whom simply do not have access to programs that put them on the path for careers in science and technology.”

The school drew opposition from a broad coalition of unions, including state and local teacher unions. United Teachers Los Angeles actively opposed the school, holding rallies on LA Unified campuses. The California Teachers Association launched a social media campaign to encourage legislators to vote against the bill.

The state superintendent of public instruction, who would have overseen the school, also opposed it, as well as the state PTA. LA Unified Superintendent Michelle King said she didn’t understand the need for the school and pointed to 97 STEM programs that already exist in LA Unified. LA Unified school board members George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson had asked their colleagues to oppose the bill, but their resolution did not garner majority support. On the same day as the LA Unified school board vote last month, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to support the school.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board supported the school, while noting that the bill’s backers wanted “to escape the close scrutiny of L.A. Unified,” which it called “not a good thing.” But it added, “Right now, the overriding concern should be providing as many great public schools for low-income kids as we can manage. This bill would get the state one school closer.”

The bill was backed by nonprofit organizations like The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and educational institutions like Caltech, UCLA, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Supporters said the school was needed to support underserved communities and pointed to the success of state-run schools in other states.

Those who opposed the school likened it to a charter school, although it would not be a charter school because it would have been run by a nonprofit organization and overseen by a board, the governance model for many charter schools. Some board members would have been appointed by elected officials.

They also pointed 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, the legislature would have had to pass the bill and the governor would have to sign it. The state has authorized three charter schools and three schools for deaf and blind students.

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