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Steve Barr on weighing a mayoral run and what education reform is getting wrong

Guest contributor | April 5, 2016

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Steve Barr (Photo credit: Kris Krug / via Flickr)

By Caroline Bermudez

When Steve Barr founded Green Dot Public Schools, a network of charter schools in the Los Angeles area, the district had gone more than 30 years without creating a new high school even as enrollment skyrocketed. And he did so in a no-holds-barred fashion. For example, in 2008, after the school district refused to let Green Dot turn around Locke High, a struggling school in the Watts neighborhood, a New Yorker profile of Barr described his effort as “the first charter group in the country to seize a high school in a hostile takeover.”

Green Dot has since grown to 18 schools in Los Angeles, outperforming neighboring schools on every metric, from attendance and test scores to graduation and college enrollment.

Although Barr left Green Dot in 2012, he has remained involved in education. He founded Future Is Now, which organizes teachers to become leaders in changing schools. He has also partnered with United Teachers Los Angeles to create schools and helped to build Green Dot New York, now University Prep, with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

In a wide-ranging conversation displaying his trademark outspokenness, Barr talked about his possible entry into the political fray—this time as a potential mayoral candidate. Although he has worked on political campaigns since graduating college, Barr has never run for public office. He also talked about his frustrations with education reformers and how his wife’s nascent teaching career informs his efforts to tackle California’s teacher shortage.

Tell me about what drives you in this work.

My dad left when I was 2. [Barr’s mother] should have gone to college, but she entered a horrible marriage. I don’t think my mom ever made more than a thousand bucks a month. I was a foster kid for a year. The first time I had health insurance was when I got a job at UPS at age 18.

When I was 14, my mom moved my little brother and I from San Jose schools to Cupertino schools up north, so I could go to high school with the same people who became Hewlett-Packard engineers. All of a sudden, I was around kids who talked about going to college as if it was their birthright.

That high school we went to, still about 2,500 kids — and back in that time we were still a manufacturing-based society — I would hear teachers say, “Twenty percent of you are going to do great, go on to college and become lawyers and doctors, … and the vast majority of you, as long as you can read and write, there’s plenty of jobs where you can raise a family and buy a home.” I had one of those jobs at UPS. The biggest financially tough decision I ever made in my life was leaving UPS and going to college.

My first two weeks at UC Santa Barbara — and I’ve gotta bring in (my stuff) in my Hefty bag and my Rambler station wagon— and somewhere in the second week of living in the dorms, having kids with gold cards and brand new cars, I had this epiphany. And this epiphany was I realized that I had put these kids on a pedestal subconsciously.

I thought they were better than me because they had dads or they were wealthy. I came to the realization that I’m not only as good as they are, I’m in a lot of ways better because I’ve come farther and by myself.

Why are you considering a mayoral run?

The mayor [Eric Garcetti] doesn’t even know there’s an education problem and will openly tell people that it’s not his problem.

The ultimate transformation in a city like this has got to be led not by seven school board members elected by less than 9 percent of the voters, or Eli Broad, but it’s got to be a mayor pushing it, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be mayoral control.

The mayoral elections are so boring; they’re about nothing. “I don’t have any opinions or I’m not going to touch it because it will wreck my future career.” Wow, I mean how undynamic is that? The most dynamic city in the country, and you have the most undynamic leadership. It’s brutal.

What frustrates you about education reformers?

One of the things we miss as reformers is when you have a successful school, there’s one basic ingredient: great teachers. And great teachers go to where work conditions are best. They’ll put in their year or two, but they’re either going to leave the profession or they’re going to go seek employment where they’re valued.

LA’s a little bit different than almost all of the other cities. All of the reform here has come from the bottom up. I think the problem now is that there’s not a lot of activists doing it, it’s becoming very donor-driven. So Eli Broad puts out a plan instead of somebody in the field and everyone’s got to fit into that plan — it’s OK, it’s nice that there’s support out there, but I think if you go to the troops, they’re a little beaten down.

I get excited when charter school people run for stuff. I hate it when I talk to somebody who does this work and they go, “Yeah, I like all the schools, I just don’t like the politics.”

So charter schools are bad at politics?

First of all, they think they invented everything. What they’ve invented is usually a singular vision you can buy into and really great work conditions. There’s an arrogance we’ve created. All I did was find good people and make sure they were taken care of. When I watch my wife, what she goes through, it’s the opposite. The least important person in LAUSD is the teacher.

Your wife is a teacher? How does she like teaching?

My wife used to be a reporter and took 10 years off to have kids, and at mid life, at age 37, says she’s going to become a teacher at LAUSD. She’s a first-year middle school teacher in Huntington Park.

She loves the kids, she loves the teaching part, just the lack of support is overwhelming. She hates [that].

Nobody’s going into teaching and it’s not because of the political fighting, it’s because the work conditions suck, the training sucks. Those are both fixable.

Do you have any possible solutions to address the shortage?

So I wrote a bill — which was fun because I’ve never written a bill [SB 933] — to create the California Teacher Corps. I know a lot of people like to yell at each other about tenure. We’re not going have anybody to fire pretty soon. If you want better teachers, grow them. Don’t blame the ones on the front lines.

The way you learn to become a teacher is you’re a resident or apprentice for a year under a master teacher. And they’ll pay you half salary and benefits and we’re going to give you $10,000. The $10,000 fits perfectly into a Cal State [teacher] practitioner-based degree.

Then you have to commit to three or four years of service. The district would look at their 10-year outlook for the profession — this is forcing them to think long-term, which they don’t do. They would put up a third of that roughly $40,000 to $50,000 bid to pay for the apprentice, the state would put up a third, and the federal government would put up a third.

The good thing about the local and the state [contributions], it’s already been outlaid in Prop. 98 money and Title II money. There’s $7 billion already outlaid for this. We’re asking for $100 million over the first five years. [State Sen.] Ben Allen’s carrying it, I’ve got reformers, I’ve got CTA [California Teachers Association] signed off on it.

The next bill I’m writing right now is the California Principals Corps. We need 100,000 new teachers, we also need 20,000 new school leaders. School leaders are a bigger problem than teachers. Let’s provide housing subsidies. This will create the biggest residency program in the country.

And in the spring, when it passes, [we’re] going to get on a bus … barnstorm every university and any military base and recruit the first class of the California Teacher Corps. Let’s really target men of color. How do you make California a place to teach?

Caroline Bermudez is Education Post‘s senior writer and a former reporter at Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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