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Zimmer accuses Broad charter plan of strategy to ‘bring down’ LAUSD

Michael Janofsky | September 22, 2015

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Eli Broad

Steve Zimmer, president of the LA Unified school board, said today that plans by Eli Broad and other philanthropists to expand the number of charter schools in the district represents “a strategy to bring down LAUSD that leaves 250,000 kids vulnerable to damage.”

A draft report of the plan appears show how the organizations involved would be creating the equivalent of a parallel school district, one with a defined goal of serving half the number of students attending LA Unified schools within eight years.

The “Great Public Schools Now Initiative” says the expansion would cost nearly half a billion dollars by 2023, through 260 new charter schools to serve an additional 130,000 students “most in need — low-income students of color.” Currently, about 151,000 students now attend charters in LA Unified, which has more charter schools, 264, than any school district in the country.

The 54-page report, dated “June 2015,” omits the names of authors or sponsoring organizations. But Eli Broad’s name appears at the end of a cover letter accompanying the report that makes a case for charter schools as “the greatest hope for students in L.A.” And alluding to the number of students on waiting lists to get into existing charters, now about 42,000, the need for more charters, he says, is urgent.

“We are committed to closing the waitlist and ensuring that every family in L.A. has access to a high-quality public school,” Broad writes. “Such dramatic charter school growth would address the needs of families who have been underserved by public schools for years, if not generations.”

He also argues that, “The stakes are extraordinarily high. In all our years working to improve public schools, we have never been so optimistic about a strategy that we believe has the potential to dramatically change not only the lives of thousands of students but also the paradigm of public education in this country.”

But Zimmer characterized the plan as a destructive one that would ignore the needs of thousands of other children “living in isolation, segregation and extreme poverty.”

“This is not an all-kids plan or an all-kids strategy,” he told LA School Report. “It’s very explicitly a some-kids strategy, a strategy that some kids will have a better education at a publicly-funded school that assumes that other kids will be injured by that opportunity. It’s not appropriate in terms of what the conversation should be in Los Angeles. The conversation should be better public education options and quality public schools for all kids, not some kids.”

He added, “To submit a business plan that focuses on market share is tantamount to commodifying our children.”

A spokeswoman for the Broad Foundation did not respond to numerous messages, seeking comment.

The draft report, a copy of which was given to LA School Report, represents the most comprehensive accounting so far of what the organizers intend to do, provided they can raise the considerable funds necessary. Broad says in his letter that $490 million “in new philanthropy” is necessary.

A full list of who is involved in the effort remains a mystery. So far, officials have acknowledged only the involvement of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, along with the W.M. Keck and Walton Family Foundations — all leading players in educational reform efforts around the country. People familiar with the plans say the effort also involves more than a dozen other groups as well as wealthy individuals, some of them from Los Angeles.

The report says the Broad and Walton foundations are the initial funders for the effort.

The rationale for the expansion effort is based on the report’s assertions that charters do a better job of educating children than traditional public schools. Citing data from the California Charter Schools Association, the authors argue that charter students generally score better on statewide tests and have higher graduation rates even though it has widely been demonstrated that not all charter schools out-perform all traditional schools.

In building its case, the report is highly critical of LA Unified, the second-largest school district in the country, and its ability to provide quality education to young people in the city.

“Los Angeles has struggled mightily to educate its K-12 students, mirroring the challenges faced by many American cities,” the authors write, adding, “The achievement of students attending LAUSD schools is poor.”

It goes on to say that the Great Public Schools Now Initiative would serve as a model for other large urban districts so that “governors, mayors and other leaders across the country can point to Los Angeles as a city where a coordinate set of important investments significantly improved opportunities for students, families and the city.”

Even before details of the initiative were made known, powerful forces within LA Unified are already mounting efforts against the expansion. Among the opposition leaders is the LA teachers union, UTLA, which has fought long and hard against charters for years, arguing that they siphon off public money from traditional schools, attract a high percentage of higher-performing students and operate without the same scrutiny required of public schools.

UTLA, like its sister unions across the country, also oppose charters because their teachers are generally not union members.

Just two days ago, as the new Broad Museum opened downtown, UTLA teachers staged a protest rally against the charter expansion plans at the museum, aiming much of their invective at Broad.

Zimmer acknowledged that the foundations’ plans have opened a new front in public education wars that have roiled LA Unified and other large districts for years. This one, he said, would bring before the board a sharp focus on issues of choice and equality.

“The board,” he said, “has many strategies, tools and existing structures to raise questions about how quickly this could happen,” he said, without identifying them.

Besides the union and possible board opposition, the expansion effort faces several other major challenges, as well, which the report describes in detail.

First among them is finding suitable facilities for the new schools. Many charters have struggled to find adequate space, leading to neighborhood fights with public schools who share space with charters under the state’s co-location regulations. The report notes that in Los Angeles “available and useable real estate is scarce and expensive.”

Next, the authors acknowledge that the sources of “effective teachers and school leaders” are insufficient to meet the need of the expansion plans at a time the number of California teacher preparation programs is declining and a prime source of the charters for new teachers  — Teach for America — is producing fewer candidates.

The report also says the search for quality teachers will be hampered by UTLA’s new labor contract with the district that provides teachers a 10 percent salary increase over the next few years.

As a third factor, the report says the effort can only succeed through an strategy of finding quality charter operators, pointing out that the state charter association has taken steps in recent years to reduce the number of “under-performing” charters  and “growth for growth’s sake” is not the aim.

A final challenge is raising money. The report says the initial support for the plan from the Broad and Walton foundations “should help to catalyze support from other philanthropic sources.” It mentions no other groups who have made contributions.

The report lists 21 foundations and 35 wealthy individuals as potential investors — all of them worth at least $1.2 billion and many of the individuals familiar names, including Elon Musk, David Geffen, Sumner Redstone, Ed Roski and Steven Spielberg.

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