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State’s first STEM school, proposed for LA, is targeted by unions before it can open

Sarah Favot | July 31, 2017

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A proposed state-run STEM school in Los Angeles is being opposed by teachers unions and others, including STEM teachers.

Teachers unions and other groups spoke out against the school’s unique governance structure and process for approval through the Legislature as well as the uncertainty of whether teachers and staff would be able to collectively bargain.

The objections were made at a Senate Education Committee hearing earlier this month where the committee members voted to advance the bill establishing the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school to the Appropriations Committee. State Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, voted against moving the bill forward.

California teachers unions are a powerful lobbying force inside the state Capitol. Their opposition has sunk previous legislation, especially around the issue of tenure.

State Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-San Fernando, who authored the bill, AB 1217, and Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada, who is co-sponsoring it, told committee members at the July 12 hearing they are committed to working with the unions and others who are opposed, like the California School Boards Association.

“I can tell you there’s a good-faith effort going on to try to address the serious concerns, and labor protections is one of those concerns,” Portantino told the committee.

A man who identified himself as a math, science and STEM teacher told the committee he opposed the bill, “Even though I am very pro-STEM.”

An analysis done for the committee concluded that the school appears to be similar to a charter school. One major difference is that charter schools must have their charter petitions approved by a local school district, county office of education, or the state. The analyst recommended that the bill be amended so that the STEM school’s plan must be approved by the state superintendent, rather than approved only by the school’s governing board. The committee adopted the amendment, giving the superintendent authority to sign off on the plan. State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, who would oversee the school, is opposed to the bill.

The analyst also noted that requiring the state to oversee a school located in Los Angeles might create oversight challenges because of the distance, so the bill was amended to include requirements that the school promptly respond to all inquiries from the state superintendent.

The state Board of Education has authorized three charter schools and operates three specialized residential schools for deaf and blind students.

“It’s an unusual step for the state to be authorizing something like this, that is a different model than schools we have for the deaf and blind,” said state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, who chairs the education committee.

Another issue is transportation. The committee members wanted to ensure that low-income students would have access to transportation to get to the school, which plans to serve students in grades 6 through 12 in downtown LA. That issue still must be worked out. The school would give priority to low-income students and students of color, who are underrepresented in STEM fields.

Teachers unions like California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers, and UTLA are opposed to the bill.

“There is already a process for charter schools to get authorized,” UTLA Elementary Vice President Gloria Ramirez told the committee. “It does not make sense to create a one-time carve-out system.”

In response to a question from Levya about why the school couldn’t be a STEM magnet school within LA Unified, Bocanegra said he wanted students from all over Los Angeles County to be able to attend the school, not just students who live within LA Unified boundaries.

“Business as usual doesn’t work,” Bocanegra said.

The lawmakers said there is interest from Caltech and UCLA to be involved in the school. Organizations that have registered their support of the bill in addition to Caltech and UCLA include USC, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, TechNet, LA City Council, and LA County Board of Supervisors.

“To me when you have that wealth of knowledge offering to help, it’s incumbent upon me to say yes to that help,” Portantino said.

The school would be run by a nonprofit organization whose board members would include a representative from UCLA, an appointee of the Senate Committee on Rules, and an appointee from the speaker of the Assembly.

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