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Learning Curves

Education Critics Attack California’s New Online College

Flex Learning Options for Workers (FLOW), a new online addition to the 115-school community college system, is set to launch in fall, 2019.

Bill Raden

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“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


One study has found that far from expanding access for the state’s hard-to-reach students of color, online classes have been an “engine of racial inequality.”


 

“What I like about Chipotle is the limited menu,” said Governor Jerry Brown in May, praising the fast-food chain’s build-your-own-burrito approach as a model for California higher education. “You put a little cheese, a little this, a little that, and you’re out of there. I think that’s a model some of our universities need to follow. … It takes kids six years instead of four years. If [universities] would go to a limited menu concept, everyone would graduate on time.”

A week later, Brown got his burrito when the legislature passed a nearly $200 billion state spending bill that offered little monetary relief for tightly squeezed University of California and California State University budgets — but included $100 million to launch California’s first wholly online, statewide virtual community college. Called Flex Learning Options for Workers (FLOW), the new two-year addition to the 115-school community college system is set to launch in fall, 2019.

Yet despite enthusiastic backing by California Community Colleges (CCC) chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, FLOW had to run a gauntlet of opposition comprised of community college stakeholders and Sacramento lawmakers, whose consensus is that the measure is being overly rushed and under-thought. One study, in fact, has found that far from expanding access for the state’s hard-to-reach students of color, online classes have been an “engine of racial inequality.”


FLOW has remained a tough sell for a governor who has demonstrated a decided tendency to adopt the latest, untested fad in cost-cutting education reform.


Although no teachers have been hired or courses announced yet, the cyber-college comes loaded with rosy assumptions that it will successfully serve what an April study by a Bill Gates-supported education policy nonprofit says are 2.5 million of the state’s most difficult-to-reach pupils — older, “stranded workers” who are typically unable to drive to a campus but who still need access to the career and technical training that will allow them to get ahead economically.

Nevertheless, FLOW has remained a tough sell for a governor who has demonstrated a decided tendency to adopt the latest, untested fad in education reform, so long as it holds out a promise of doing more with far fewer resources. Brown was quick to jump aboard the school-choice bandwagon and, as mayor of Oakland, founded two charters — the Oakland School for the Arts and the Oakland Military Institute — that have consistently failed to distinguish themselves from their public school neighbors, in spite of lavish private funding.

Two of FLOW’s severest critics are University of California, Santa Barbara professor and education author Christopher Newfield, and researcher Cameron Sublett, an associate professor of education at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Earlier this year, in a paper published by Inside Higher Ed, the pair disaggregated the numbers provided by the CCC’s chancellor’s office to starkly illuminate the deficiencies of moving face-to-face classroom learning online for students of color.

“When we did that, you find that the stories that the chancellor’s office is telling us are not accurate,” Sublett explained to Capital & Main. “In developmental ed courses — so-called remedial courses — the face-to-face/online disparity is actually greater. Furthermore, if you look at it by racial category, the disparity is actually not closing but remaining stable over time. So the whole idea they’re at parity between face-to-face and online courses is only a partial representation of the truth. In fact, for certain subpopulations of student groups within the community college system in the state, success rates remain flat in online courses, and those success rates remain persistently lower than they are in face-to-face courses.”

The misrepresentation doesn’t stop there. Some of the FLOW proposal’s most impressive claims for parity between — and even the superiority of — online over face-to-face learning rely on data from the Action Lab, the research arm of public online learning behemoth Arizona State University.

But in a June Forbes exposé, investigative reporter Derek Newton discredited wide swaths of Action Lab findings in “Making Digital Learning Work,” a Gates Foundation-funded research partnership between ASU and the Boston Consulting Group. Newton accused the study’s authors of outlandish, if self-dealing misreadings of elementary data: “To describe the ASU report as sloppy is generous. Dishonest is more accurate,” the reporter charged.

Some of the most persuasive rebuttals of the FLOW numbers come from data harvested far closer to home. Public Policy Institute of California’s higher education research team of Hans Johnson, Marisol Cuellar Mejia and Kevin Cook has regularly sifted through the student outcomes of learners from the Online Education Initiative (OEI), the statewide project that is ironically led by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and has long made CCC the largest provider of online classes in the nation, surpassing the one million enrollment mark in 2013.

“African American and Hispanic students have respectively 17.5 and 9.8 percentage points lower online course success rates than white students,” reports 2015’s “Successful Online Courses in California’s Community Colleges.” Also, “we find that online course success rates are between 11 and 14 percentage points lower than traditional course success rates. In addition, we find that online learning does nothing to overcome achievement gaps across racial/ethnic groups — in fact, these gaps are even larger in online classes,” adds PPIC’s 2014 report, “Online Learning and Student Outcomes in California’s Community Colleges.”

“We already have the infrastructure in place to offer this program they’re seeking,” notes Jim Mahler, a veteran San Diego Community College math and engineering professor, and president of the Community College Council of the California Federation of Teachers. (Disclosure: CFT is a financial supporter of this website.) “I don’t see a need to create a new college from a policy standpoint. The amount of money they’re throwing into it is larger than the budget of most community colleges. It’s the kind of money that could be used for better purposes that would serve students in a better way.”

This is not the first time, Sublett noted, that Brown has aggressively pursued the cyber-education dream of reaping cost benefits on the backs of students by moving high quality, face-to-face instruction online. In 2013, the governor famously brokered a private-public partnership between the for-profit Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider Udacity and San Jose State University. Six months later, the deal imploded following revelations that more than half the students in the rollout failed their final exams and that Udacity’s online courses actually reduced remedial education outcomes.

“I think that is Governor Brown’s paradigm,” Sublett reflected. “I think he does embrace online learning to the degree that he does because he sees potential cost savings. “There’s this idea among many people that online is cheaper and faster, but I don’t think you’ll find lots of support among people that know how online learning actually operates.”


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Learning Curves

West Virginia Teachers Flex Muscle Again

Meanwhile, Oakland teachers break out the picket signs and LAUSD discovers the joys of transparency.

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LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


“Yes, West Virginia, there is a teachers union, and it’s still fighting mad.” That was the message for Mountain State lawmakers this week when thousands of West Virginia teachers and school workers walked off the job to kill a privatization bill reputedly written in retaliation for last year’s historic nine-day teachers strike. Only hours into the Tuesday-Wednesday walkout, the state’s House of Delegates voted 53 to 45 to indefinitely table Senate Bill 451, which had linked a teacher pay raise to the gutting of job security and a first-time legalization for West Virginia of charters and private school vouchers. “Instead of trying to treat a symptom with garbage legislation that isn’t even vetted or proven to work,” Logan County teacher Kristina Gore told New York magazine, “let’s brainstorm some legislation to fix the real problem — the social conditions in which our children live.”

All eyes now turn to the East Bay, where over 3,000 Oakland Unified educators walked off the job today, following the recommendations issued last Friday by a neutral fact-finding panel, which agreed with key union bargaining positions but was unable to break the deadlock. “Years of underfunding, the unregulated growth of the charter school industry and district neglect [have] starved our schools of the necessary resources,” OEA president Keith Brown charged at a Saturday press conference. In addition to a 12 percent raise over three years, the union is asking for class size reductions, more support staff and is opposing extreme austerity measures that could shutter up to 24 OUSD neighborhood schools.

That OUSD chopping block was the subject of Tuesday’s almost Dickensian Oakland school board meeting in which a procession of tearful parents, students, teachers, activists and education leaders pleaded with trustees to spare programs targeted for cuts. School libraries, the district’s restorative justice and foster youth programs, and its Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement services have all been slated for deep reductions in the current, $21.75 million round of budget cuts. The final vote comes February 25.

A murky scheme to transform Los Angeles Unified into a“portfolio” or “network” school district became a little more transparent last week when LAUSD suddenly released a torrent of documents related to superintendent Austin Beutner’s “Re-Imagine LAUSD” reorganization plan. After months of stonewalling on California Public Records Act requests from news media and BD 3 school board member Scott Schmerelson, the office of LAUSD General Counsel David Holmquist released hundreds of pages of Re-Imagine contracts and memoranda after Schmerelson upped the ante by introducing a resolution reprimanding the superintendent for his “lack of transparency and responsiveness.” That measure passed in a 5-1 vote Tuesday after board members soundly rejected BD 4 member Nick Melvoin’s attempt to resurrect an old ALEC model law attack on teacher job security called “mutual consent.”

The most eye-popping of the PRAs is LAUSD’s 24-page, $765,000 contract with national portfolio district retrofitters Kitamba. The company, which also designed the portfolio transformation of Camden, New Jersey schools that has turned that district into a parent-versus-parent war zone, was engaged to implement a performance-based rating system that, under the portfolio system of governance, is used by district “network leaders” to justify closing and replacing low-testing public schools — usually with charters. Kitamba CEO Rajeev Bajaj, who may be best remembered in New Jersey for his connection to a conflict-of-interest scandal involving former Newark schools chief Christopher Cerf, is leading the LAUSD effort.

California college sexual assault cases are on hold following last month’s state appellate court decision that ruled a USC football player accused of sexual assault must be allowed to cross-examine his accuser. According to the L.A. Times, the January 4 reversal has left Golden State colleges and universities scrambling to revise their sexual misconduct policies. The decision followed controversial new federal Title IX sexual misconduct rules proposed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is seeking to rescind trauma-informed Obama guidelines and replace them with narrower, more trial-like proceedings, including the cross-examination of accusers in real time. Universities, including the UC and Cal State systems, have opposed direct questioning as an intimidation of assault victims. Since the ruling, Cal State has temporarily halted proceedings in 75 cases that are probably eligible for disciplinary hearings. CSU Title IX coordinator Linda Hoos told the Times that the university is crafting a policy where accusers will be cross-examined via videoconferencing and through a neutral intermediary. UC is expected to follow suit.


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Bill Aims to Fix Hollow ‘College Promise’ Aid Program

Also this week: Governor Gavin Newsom chooses a new state education board president, Oakland teachers move closer to a strike and the money continues to flow in an L.A. school board race.

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East Los Angeles College, one of California's 115 community colleges.

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday filled the state’s most powerful unelected education post, appointing Stanford University professor emeritus Linda Darling-Hammond as president of California’s State Board of Education. In his State of the State address, Newsom said that the nationally renowned K-12 education researcher would work alongside new schools superintendent Tony Thurmond to confront problems plaguing California’s public schools.

Darling-Hammond, who currently chairs the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and is president of the Learning Policy Institute, a Palo Alto education think tank, is the first African-American woman to head the 11-member board. The acclaimed expert in teacher preparation and educational equity has more recently come under fire for a report on school choice she co-authored that embraced portfolio districts but ignored the negative impact that charter schools have on the viability of neighborhood public schools.

Oakland high school students staged a one-day sickout Friday in support of Oakland Unified teachers, who have been working without a contract for two years. Four days earlier, the Oakland Education Association overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike. Defying a prerecorded call and email sent on Thursday by the district that urged parents to keep their kids in class, hundreds of students from across Oakland took to the streets, marching down Broadway from Oakland Tech High School to a rally in front of Oakland Unified’s downtown headquarters.

The strike vote clears the deck for OUSD teachers to walk off the job should tomorrow’s release of fact-findings by a state-appointed mediation panel fail to broker a settlement. In addition to reduced class sizes and more school counselors and nurses, OUSD teachers are demanding an end to a district plan to shutter up to 24 neighborhood schools. On February 11, the OUSD school board delayed a vote on authorizing $20.2 million of an anticipated $30 million in spending cuts in the face of mounting opposition. A coalition of advocacy groups criticized the cuts in a letter to the board, saying the budget process had “not been transparent, inclusive or accountable to the board or community.” That vote was rescheduled for February 25.

California’s College Promise turns out to be a hollow pledge for the majority of the 2.1 million students attending California Community Colleges, charged CCC’s student government president last week. In a CalMatters interview, Iiyshaa Youngblood, a student at Moreno Valley College, described the tuition scholarship program, which currently covers a year’s worth of fees for first-time, full-time community college students, as helping “people who can already afford college.” Assembly Bill 2, which is currently sitting in the Assembly Committee on Higher Education, proposes to expand the program for the second year of community college.


The net college costs of attendance for low-income community college students end up being far more than at a California State University or University of California campus.


According to Youngblood, the students who are most in need are ineligible for College Promise — the part-timers that make up more than two-thirds of the community college enrollment but who are too burdened with jobs and family commitments to manage a full-time course load. The scholarship program further falls short, according to a January report from the Institute for College Access and Success, by not covering non-tuition expenses like food, transportation and textbooks. Instead, the net college costs of attendance (all costs minus financial aid grants) for low-income community college students end up being far more than at a California State University or University of California campus.

The latest update on the money race in Los Angeles Unified’s March 5 special election to fill out the term of disgraced Board District 5 member Ref Rodriguez comes courtesy of intrepid ed blogger Sara “Redqueeninla” Roos. In a must-read, granular analysis, Roos breaks down the race’s campaign donations by profession or “affinity.” The results? “An awesome display of the power of machine politics” reflected in the number and size of donations from city contractors, developers, commissioners, public employees and appointees, political consultants and public-private partners.

Of the top four money recipients, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy executive Allison Bajracharya drew 75 percent of the charter-related donations in the race, which comprise 45 percent of her campaign’s receipts. Former Eric Garcetti aide Heather Repenning is second, with 15 percent of all charter donations (or seven percent of her campaign’s overall contributions). Though Repenning, who also leads the top four with a whopping .81 patronage rating, has pledged that she would refuse charter school money, the independent expenditure committee backing her candidacy has already banked a $5,000 check from millionaire businessman and charter super-patron Bill Bloomfield.


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State to Study Charter Schools’ Impact as Money Flows Into L.A. School Board Election

LAUSD marks the passing of Michelle King. The strange case of Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. Will Oakland teachers strike?

Bill Raden

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The late Michelle King. (Photo: LAUSD)

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

California’s charter school sector moved one step closer to accountability on Tuesday when Governor Gavin Newsom officially asked State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to assemble an expert panel to assess the effect on public school district finances by unregulated charter school expansion. Thurmond’s panel represents the first time California will have conducted any kind of in-depth analysis of charter impacts on public education since the state passed its original charter legislation in 1992. It has until July 1 to deliver its findings.

Meanwhile, the race for L.A Unified’s March 5 school board special election entered its final stretch this week as candidates vied to fill out the term of pro-charter Board District 5 member Ref Rodriguez, who resigned in July following a felony conviction for campaign money laundering. At stake is the political balance of a split board as L.A. schools superintendent Austin Beutner prepares to roll out a controversial portfolio district reorganization plan.

Beutner’s biggest fear has to be an outright March 5 win by former two-time BD 5 representative Jackie Goldberg, a progressive L.A. icon who is fourth in campaign contributions but is expected to benefit from her broad name recognition and the pivotal endorsement (and financial might) of United Teachers Los Angeles. Nipping at her heels as far as labor support goes is money leader Heather Repenning, a former aide to Mayor Eric Garcetti. Repenning comes to the race with the backing of Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents school cafeteria workers, janitors and teachers’ aides, and has already chipped in over $400K in independent expenditure money. The contest for the charter vote — and the endorsement of California Charter School Association Advocates, which announced it is waiting to see who makes it to a runoff — is between former charter school executive Allison Bajracharya and Huntington Park City Councilmember Graciela Ortiz, who are respectively number two and three in total campaign contributions.

Flags flew at half-staff this week at Los Angeles Unified in honor of Dr. Michelle King, the much-admired former LAUSD superintendent whose death from cancer at the age of 57 was announced by the district Feb. 2. King, who was hired in January 2016 to replace retiring L.A. schools supe Ramon C. Cortines, had risen through the district’s ranks in a 33-year-career that was cut short by a September 2017 medical leave that became permanent the following January.

As LAUSD’s first African-American woman superintendent, King’s appointment also helped crack a longstanding glass ceiling in education where women account for less than a quarter of all superintendents, according to a 2015 survey by the School Superintendents Association. Her selection had capped weeks of intensive community input that turned out to match King to a tee — a lifelong educator and innovator with deep classroom roots and hands-on experience with LAUSD’s 88 percent diverse enrollment and the challenges facing a massive school district whose student body is wracked by an 80 percent poverty rate.

One wrinkle to hiring career non-educators from Wall Street as your school superintendent turns out to be their unconventional ideas about ethical hiring practices for a public education leader. A week after Learning Curves called out Austin Beutner as one of the first to ink a lobbying deal with scandal-spattered and #MeToo-accused former State Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, a report by the L.A. TimesMelody Gutierrez fills in details on the LAUSD contract and Sacramento’s insider politics-as-usual enabling. And investigative ed blogger Carl Petersen connects more of the curious dots between Beutner, Sebastian and the bad seed lobbyist’s political potentate dad, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Oakland teachers are now set to turn the East Bay red for ed in the wake of Monday’s announcement by the Oakland Education Association that the OEA rank and file voted 2,206 to 105 to authorize a strike. The soonest that teachers could legally occupy picket lines is after Feb. 15, when a neutral, three-member fact-finding panel is expected to release its report on the teachers’ stalemated contract talks with their district. Teacher demands closely echo those that resulted in last month’s six-day walkout by L.A. teachers. They include a 12 percent raise over three years, smaller classes, additional counselors and school nurses, and scrapping a district plan to close up to 24 neighborhood public schools.


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L.A. School District’s Hire Under Fire as Ridley-Thomas Questions Mount

Why would LAUSD hire a man already on the carpet both for sexual harassment allegations and landing a suspiciously cushy job at USC?

Bill Raden

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Sebastian Ridley-Thomas photo by Mark.sanchez.asm

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

One political winner of last week’s Los Angeles teachers strike settlement was L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner. The former investment banker has made no secret of his desire to one day land the top job at L.A. City Hall, and signing a deal became his first real test of public leadership. Test Two may be more daunting — namely, explaining why he put a scandal-plagued and #MeToo-accused former State Assemblymember on the district payroll as a lobbyist.

The existence of the four-week lobbying contract between LAUSD and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (SRT), whose father is the powerful L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (MRT), came to light January 16, when the Assembly released findings that SRT likely sexually harassed staffers before resigning from the legislature in December 2017. The L.A. Times noted that SRT had accompanied Beutner and LAUSD school board president Mónica García to Sacramento on January 9 to help them drum up lawmaker opposition to the teachers strike. But it is the timing of Beutner’s January 11 bargaining offer two days later — sweetened by a $10 million pledge of county mental health money for school nurses by MRT — that is now raising eyebrows.

Not to worry, former Center for Governmental Studies president Robert Stern assured Learning Curves: “The only way [SRT’s hiring] would have been illegal is if [Mark] Ridley-Thomas had gone to Beutner and said, ‘You want $10 million? Hire my son.’ But is it unethical? Absolutely!”

In a written statement, an LAUSD spokesperson described the county pledge as originating in talks that “began last summer.” The lobbying contract, it affirmed, was terminated January 16, “once the Assembly investigation was made public.” (Neither of the Ridley-Thomases responded to requests for comment.) Left unexplained is why LAUSD would risk hiring somebody already under an ethics blowtorch from last August’s L.A. Times headlines on the sexual harassment allegations and on a second SRT scandal at the University of Southern California that similarly involved a cushy job for junior and a large sum from senior. That case was forwarded by USC to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles for possible criminal prosecution.

Perhaps the biggest feather in the L.A. schools supe’s cap was added on Tuesday. Beutner not only successfully shepherded the United Teachers Los Angeles agreement through a unanimous LAUSD school board vote but also made good on a promise to teachers that he would support a resolution calling for an immediate pause on new charter school authorizations. The Richard Vladovic-authored measure, which urges state lawmakers to take an eight-to-10 month statewide breather to assess the impacts and efficacy of the state’s 27-year-old charter laws, has no legal force. Nevertheless, hundreds of panicked charter parents rallied outside the meeting under the mistaken impression the board was voting to ban charters. Despite a last-minute attempt by BD 6 member Kelly Gonez to dilute its language, only BD 4’s Nick Melvoin ended up casting a no vote.

LAUSD need only have looked to Oakland Unified to understand the urgency for a charter time-out. On Monday, the OUSD board of directors voted to close East Oakland’s Roots International Academy middle school. That action, which sparked a firestorm of community outrage, was only the first casualty of a draconian district plan to slash $30 million in spending by closing up to 24, predominately low-income neighborhood schools. More school closing announcements are expected soon.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the closings, which are also at the center of this week’s strike vote by the Oakland Education Association, have proved a galvanizing force for East Bay ed progressives. “The Roots vote was just one school, and we were having hundreds of people showing up,” noted organizer Mike Hutchinson of the Oakland Public Education Network (OPEN), which opposes the closures. “This week other schools are finding out they’re under threat. And so at the next meeting, there will probably be 10 schools there. We are in a very strong position for this fight now.”


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Los Angeles Teachers Strike Enters Second Week Without a Deal in Sight

Contract talks between the Los Angeles school district and teachers union continue, but don’t expect classes to resume before Wednesday.

Bill Raden

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City Hall teachers rally photo by Joanne Kim

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

Capital & Main’s budget analysis of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s financials have revealed a school district with far more money at its disposal than LAUSD has claimed during the teachers strike. Estimates that new money from the governor’s recently proposed budget, plus unspent revenues from LAUSD’s yearly over-projections of spending and under-projections of LCFF funding increases, should give schools superintendent Austin Beutner roughly $640 million more to settle core union demands that the district has priced at $400 million per each contract year. That leaves only philosophical disagreements. The union has framed the strike as a fight for democratic, civic values and as holding the line against gearing education to serve solely private economic interests. Teachers are also demanding a greater say in school site budgets and on reducing non-mandated achievement testing.

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The January 16 release of Governor Gavin Newsom’s revised state budget had thoroughly upended LAUSD’s monetary objections to a strike settlement. The district had been insisting that LAUSD couldn’t afford United Teachers Los Angeles’ demands for lower class sizes or for bringing school sites up to pre-Great Recession levels of full-time nurses, librarians, counselors and social services workers. But Newsom’s proposal to spend a record $80.7 billion on K-12 education undercut that poverty argument with pension savings worth as much as an additional $140 million that LAUSD can now put onto the bargaining table. The district has also been sitting on another $1.9 billion in surplus cash reserves.

For those keeping score, Week One of the strike saw the union gaining support of parents and students as the days wore on. LAUSD reported that school attendance, which was around 30 percent of normal on Tuesday, had plunged to 17 percent by Thursday and Friday. Despite driving rains, UTLA strike organizers staged several mass rallies, including gatherings in front of the California Charter Schools Association (to protest the opening of a Boyle Heights “mega KIPP” charter school) and in front of school board member Mónica García’s house. Friday saw UTLA’s most impressive flexing of its muscle, when over 60,000 strikers and supporters converged on downtown’s Grand Park just as bargaining was getting under way across the street.

Political casualties of the strike may turn out to be onetime (and future?) L.A. mayoral hopeful Beutner and fellow Democrat allies in the school board majority voting bloc, who have been increasingly isolated as party leaders, both statewide and nationally, have come out on the side of the teachers. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders expressed solidarity with L.A. teachers and urged “a revolution in public education.” Sanders’ theme was echoed by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her own tweet of support. By week’s end even the L.A. school board itself officially split when board members George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson came out with strong statements backing the teachers.

As striking Los Angeles teachers take a break from school picket lines today for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, negotiations that had resumed on Thursday and continued through the long weekend don’t appear to have yielded the breakthrough needed to get educators back into the classroom by Tuesday. A tersely worded statement yesterday from L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is hosting the sessions at City Hall under a media blackout, described Sunday’s meeting as “productive” and affirmed that both sides remained committed to working around the clock to resolve the outstanding issues as quickly as possible. But don’t expect classes to resume before Wednesday. It will take at least a day, says UTLA, for the rank and file to approve any settlement.


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Will Los Angeles Teachers Strike Jan. 10?

A state-appointed fact-finding panel mostly punted on unresolved equity demands that form the heart of what Los Angeles’ teacher union has framed as a fight to save L.A.’s “civic institution of public education.”

Bill Raden

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Teachers and their supporters rally in downtown Los Angeles, December 15. (Photo: Bill Raden)

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

Fasten your seatbelts Los Angeles, it’s going to be a bumpy strike. That was the subtext to a tumultuous week that saw over 50,000 L.A. teachers, students and families take to the streets Saturday to support a union faced with budgetary saber-rattling by Los Angeles Unified, and that climaxed on Wednesday with United Teachers Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl setting a January 10 walkout date — unless Los Angeles Unified negotiators meet key union demands for investments in the district’s highest-poverty students.

Caputo-Pearl’s announcement came a day after L.A. Unified superintendent Austin Beutner erroneously claimed that the union had accepted the district’s six percent pay raise offer, as recommended in Tuesday’s report by state-appointed fact-finders who also urged LAUSD to kick in the modest equivalent of a one to three percent salary increase for new hires to reduce class sizes, and for both sides to work together to lobby Sacramento for more state funding.

Fact-finding panel chairman David A. Weinberg mostly punted on 19 of 21 unresolved equity demands that form the heart of what UTLA has framed as a fight to save L.A.’s “civic institution of public education.” The union won some minor points, like the allowing of teacher input on charter co-locations, and on scrapping a district privilege to unilaterally lift class size caps during fiscal crunches. But by accepting at face value LAUSD’s latest claims of imminent bankruptcy, Weinberg left unanswered a critical question: How could LAUSD annually project catastrophic, three-year deficits and still have its unrestricted cash reserves balloon from $500 million to nearly $2 billion during the same five-year period?

“We have watched underfunding and actions of privatizers undermine our students and our schools for too long. No more,” Caputo-Pearl warned on Wednesday.

The controversy over LAUSD’s “structural deficit” is already defining next March’s special school board election. Ten candidates have thrown in their hats for the seat left vacant by the July resignation of disgraced ex-Board District 5 member Ref Rodriguez. At stake is the single-vote edge enjoyed by Rodriguez’s former pro-charter voting block, currently led by board president Monica Garcia. But the race heated up considerably last week when former two-time BD 5 representative Jackie Goldberg won the UTLA board’s overwhelming endorsement. The contest hinges on which of the other candidates will attract the lucrative support of charter school backers, who in 2017 spent a record-shattering $6.6 million to oust former board president Steve Zimmer in favor of staunch Beutner ally Nick Melvoin.

Also heating up is speculation on how Governor-elect Gavin Newsom’s State Board of Education picks will alter the ideology of a board that has been seen as bending over backwards to favor charter schools. This week, the nonprofit education news site EdSource pointed out that, although it will take years to fully reshape the Jerry Brown-appointed, 11-member board, Newsom’s first opportunity will come on his January 7 inauguration day. That’s when current president Michael Kirst, who was instrumental in California’s adoption of dubious Common Core State Standards, retires. Departing a week later will be Trish Boyd Williams, whose pro-charter charter enthusiasm and career ties to corporate-reform cash have been the bane of local school boards. Also leaving in 2019 will be Bruce Holaday. The term of Karen Valdes, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in 2017, ends in January.


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Los Angeles and Oakland Teachers Rally Amid Deadlocked Contract Talks

A Los Angeles school board meeting turned raucous days ahead of two solidarity rallies to be held Saturday in L.A. and Oakland.

Bill Raden

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LAUSD school board photo and video by Bill Raden.

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

Two California teachers unions, which are currently deadlocked in separate contract talks with their respective school districts, are on the verge of launching the West Coast’s biggest teacher walkout since 1989. What happens next will decide far more than fair wages for career educators. At stake are broader principles of equity, expressed as contract demands for smaller class sizes and less testing, the addition of sufficient health and social services staff, and an investment in community schooling and fair funding — aimed at restoring public education as a public good for all Californians, rather than as a private interest granted to the lucky few.

While they await the results of a state-mediated fact-finding process, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Oakland Education Association (OEA) have declared Saturday, December 15, a day of solidarity, and have invited all to join teachers in a rally to defend public education. The Oakland action kicks off at Omni Commons at 11 a.m., while L.A.’s march and rally begins at Grand Park at 10 a.m.

Meanwhile, an estimated 90 Oakland Unified teachers skipped classes December 10 in a one-day wildcat sickout to protest some of the state’s lowest teacher pay — against a backdrop of California’s fast-rising living costs. But a more fundamental grievance is with the $60 million that Oakland Unified must cut over the next two years. It has led superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell to adopt a draconian district downsizing plan that could close up to 24 mostly low-income neighborhood public schools and coordinate the remainder of the 87-campus district with the city’s 45 charters on things like enrollment and transportation. The strategy has been likened to a “portfolio model,” the controversial template for privatized district governance that favors charter expansion at the expense of traditional public schools.

It also bears an uncanny resemblance to “Re-Imagine LAUSD,” the prematurely leaked but still mostly secret pet portfolio plan of L.A. Unified supe Austin Beutner — just one of the issues behind the takeover by 50 placard-carrying protesters at the L.A. school board meeting last Tuesday. Students, parents and teachers seized the floor and unfurled a banner of union-aligned demands: an end to random student searches; reductions in class sizes and testing; and the hiring of more health workers, community schools and per-pupil funding. For good measure, they also chanted down attempts by board president Mónica Garcia to restore order, a caterwaul that eventually drove Beutner and his board allies from the room.

Interrupted was a budget hearing marked by a kind of testy déjà vu: CFO Scott Price again played down the significance of a nearly $2 billion cash surplus; and board members George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson again wearily pushed back against Board District 4’s Nick Melvoin’s insistence that the district’s so-called structural budget deficit was a recipe for mass layoffs and state receivership (in spite of how, in 10 years, none of the district’s projections of red ink has ever been manifested).

“It’s called spin,” shrugged UTLA Central Area board member Tomás Flores at a post-occupy sidewalk rally. “What they have been spinning is that the district is at the edge of bankruptcy. … I believe that the fact-finding did not need to continue any longer than the three days. There wasn’t anything else to be said. The district hasn’t been honest.” (Beutner declined to comment for this story.)

If November’s blue wave means the tide has indeed turned against California’s market-driven ed reformers, grassroots activists aren’t resting on any laurels. That’s why they are circulating a petition launched by the Oakland Public Education Network (OPEN), asking Governor-elect Gavin Newsom to abide by four seemingly common sense hiring principles:

  • No conflicts of business interests
  • Education-related appointments must strictly mirror California’s 90/10 proportion of public-to-charter-school enrollments
  • No more Betsy DeVoses guarding the regulatory henhouse (i.e., appoint only seasoned, public school-committed educators to the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools)
  • Genuinely partner with the public schools community to uproot what OPEN considers the predatory incentives and equity barriers that it says are the legacy of California’s 25-year-long ed reform wrong turn.

One reason Newsom might want to expedite the restoration of California’s ed code to a less laissez faire era of grace is the deregulated marketplace’s tendency to incentivize a school’s drift into inequality. That’s the conclusion of “Are California’s Charter Schools the New Separate-But-Equal “Schools of Excellence,” or Are They Worse Than Plessy?”

The February study, by University of Connecticut law professor Preston Green and Montclair State University professor of counseling and educational leadership Joseph Oluwole, looks at California’s low-income public schools landscape, including the history of racially segregated, pre-civil rights “separate-but-equal” schools, to investigate claims that it can be advantageous to concentrate low-income black and Latino kids.

Their conclusion? Bad idea. Despite some worthy, individual examples, when taken out of the community or scaled up and put under an Education Management Organization (EMO), corporate priorities and financial gain invariably drain off resources. Green and Oluwole recommend that states ban EMO franchises altogether and allow authorizing districts to consider economic impact.


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A Come-From-Behind Win for Tony Thurmond?

L.A. Unified reimagines the 1990s. The effects of immigration crackdowns on Latino student enrollment. Tony Thurmond rallies to take the lead in state schools chief race.

Bill Raden

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Superintendent-apparent: Tony Thurmond

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

The lid on a secret scheme to radically decentralize Los Angeles Unified was partially pried open last week when the Los Angeles Times provided the first inklings of what LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner has variously called “realignment” and “reimagining” since his hiring in May. Times education writers Howard Blume and Anna Phillips say highlights include a purge of “discretionary” staff at the district’s Beaudry Avenue headquarters. Budgeting, hiring and curriculum authority would be transferred to LAUSD’s 988 district-managed schools, which will be organized into 32 geographic “networks” under the oversight of regional offices. The theory is that cost savings and “charter-like” autonomy will improve student outcomes. Beutner is expected to unveil details next month.

Reimagining’s actual reimagineers are outside consultants who carried out a similar reorganization of Newark, New Jersey schools using a highly controversial approach borrowed from Wall Street. Called the “portfolio model,” it means each of the 32 L.A. networks would be overseen like a stock portfolio. A portfolio manager would keep the “good” schools and dump the “bad” by turning them over to a charter or shutting them down much like a bum stock. Why that should fare any better than a short-lived LAUSD reform in the 1990s that also divided the district into small, semi-autonomous clusters but failed to budge academic performance remains unclear. The changes in Newark included neighborhood school closures, mass firings of teachers and principals, a spike in new charters and a revolt by parents that drove out former Newark supe — and current L.A. consultant — Cami Anderson.

One wrinkle in LAUSD going portfolio is the March 5 special election to fill the District 5 seat left vacant by the August resignation of disgraced board member Ref Rodriguez. District 5 veteran Jackie Goldberg’s October 26 announcement that she is running for a third term in her old board seat could effectively make the contest a local referendum on the Beutner plan. The progressive, twice-elected L.A. City Councilmember and two-term California Assemblymember has never lost a race in her political career. The pro-charter forces on the current one-vote board majority might consider having a kinder, gentler-to-public school families Plan B waiting in the wings.

Speaking of shoo-ins, it turns out that any talk of a Marshall Tuck victory in last week’s inconclusive election for California Superintendent of Public Instruction was a tad premature. As of Wednesday evening, the California Secretary of State reported that progressive Assemblymember Tony Thurmond has surged ahead of the former charter school operator by nearly 75,000 votes in the ongoing count of an estimated 4.8 million, mostly mail-in ballots that arrived after Election Day. Although millions of ballots remain to be counted, given the fact that late voters in California traditionally swing leftward and more diverse, Learning Curves is officially going out on a limb to be the first to congratulate superintendent-elect Thurmond on his narrow but decisive victory.

This week’s prize for the least surprising findings in an education study goes to Stanford researchers Thomas Dee and Mark Murphy, who determined that wherever county law-enforcement cooperated in ramped-up immigration enforcement with ICE agents, Latino school enrollment dropped by an average of almost eight percent within two years. Federal law prohibits schools and districts from adopting policies that deny or discourage children from enrolling because of immigration status. But Dee and Murphy’s “Vanished Classmates: The Effects of Local Immigration Enforcement on Student Enrollment” estimated that 300,000 Latino children were uprooted from their schools between 2000 and 2011 in 55 jurisdictions that had voluntary enforcement partnerships with the feds.


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Wealthy Charter Backers Flood California Schools Chief Race With Cash

The record-shattering spending on candidate Marshall Tuck mirrors the threat level that a Sacramento without Jerry Brown represents to the charter school lobby.

Bill Raden

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Photo by jcjusay

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

The state schools superintendent contest between East Bay progressive Assemblymember Tony Thurmond and onetime Los Angeles charter school operator Marshall Tuck has been what one might expect of a down-ballot race swamped by below-the-belt attack ads and low-flying slate mailers— namely, a race paid for by unprecedented levels of outside independent expenditure committee (IE) spending by conservative billionaires trying to remake California education according to their privatizing vision.

On October 28, the non-profit journalism website EdSource reported that campaign spending had pushed past the stratospheric $50 million mark, easily making it the costliest schools chief race in history. Roughly $34 million benefited Tuck, whose pair of PACs directed by charter lobbyists EdVoice outspent the lone pro-Thurmond labor IE by $28.8 million to $12.2 million. (Disclosure: Some unions financially supporting Thurmond are also supporters of this website.) Top Tuck contributors represented a Who’s Who of philanthropists who have been leveraging their personal fortunes to radically reconfigure public schools:

Contribution Contribution
1. Bill Bloomfield $6,761,900
2. The Walton Family $5,138,400
3. Eli Broad $3,216,305
4.  Arthur Rock  $3,216,305
5. Doris F. Fisher  $3,090,400
6. Richard Riordan  $2,007,000
 Total  $23,928,605

Source: Cal-Access

One problem with having the Walmart Waltons foot a candidate’s bills is the presumptive link to the far-right agenda of Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos. Carrie Walton Penner’s support for DeVos included a board seat on her pet pro-voucher organization, Alliance for School Choice. Tuck’s moneyed backers are also betting big on neoliberal neophyte Buffy Wicks (and against progressive firebrand Jovanka Beckles) to fill Thurmond’s Assembly District 15 seat. If successful, Wicks could help dilute any legislative fixes of charters before they reach the desk of Gavin Newsom, the gubernatorial bête noir of the California Charter School Association.

One advantage to having Walmart-sized buying power is traction. In mid-October, EdVoice’s $8.55 million “thermonuclear” media response to a $3 million pro-Thurmond ad buy had Tuck squeaking ahead in the polls by October 24. That lead widened in last Wednesday’s University of California, Berkeley IGS Poll, with Tuck polling 48 percent to Thurmond’s 36 (although a self-survey on iSideWith.com has Thurmond at 46 and Tuck at 34). The poll noted that 64 percent of Republicans favored Tuck, compared to 14 percent for Thurmond.

Tuck’s appeal to the right is no accident. Last week, members of California’s congressional delegation called on Tuck to disavow the $233,000 EdVoice has spent to plaster his face on Republican slate mailers around the state. During the primary, Tuck appeared on reelection mailers for key Trump allies Devin Nunes (R-CA 22) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA 23). This time out, Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA 13) complained, he’s effectively helping Republicans in districts key to Democratic hopes to flip Congress in Tuesday’s hoped-for blue wave. They include the 25th District, where 31-year-old Katie Hill appears poised to knock out Republican Steve Knight, and the 45th District, where UC Irvine law professor Katie Porter hopes to retire Orange County Trump loyalist Mimi Walters. And on Saturday, Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox tweeted his endorsement of Tuck, alongside that of Republican EdVoice cofounder Steve Poizner for state insurance commissioner.

Tuck is also taking heat for EdVoice attack ads tarring Thurmond with racially tinged falsehoods. On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California objected to its name being used on a Tuck slate mailer that doubled down on debunked claims in an EdVoice TV spot that the Obama White House “reprimanded” Thurmond over mishandling of Title IX claims when he was a school board member. That ad earned Tuck an angry censure by state Democratic Party Women’s Caucus Chair Christine Pelosi and Southern Chair Carolyn Fowler, along with California-Hawaii NAACP president Alice Huffman, over the ad’s alleged use of racist “dog whistles” and for “being willing to weaponize children’s trauma.”

The record-shattering spending on Tuck ultimately mirrors the threat level that a Sacramento without Jerry Brown represents to EdVoice executive director Bill Lucia. With Gavin Newsom ahead of his Republican opponent, John Cox, by 18 points in Wednesday’s poll, Newsom’s pledges for greater accountability and a moratorium on further expansion in charter-heavy districts are the stuff that keeps California school privatizers turning in their sleep. Of the supe candidates, Tuck alone has flatly rejected a “pause” in favor of limited financial help to those districts for orderly downsizing through school closures and mass teacher layoffs. For the laissez-faire ed-reform faithful, “disruption” is proof that deregulated markets and robust competition are working.


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California’s Schools Chief Candidates Double Down on Accusations

State superintendent’s race turns angry. Trump says gender is all in the crotch. Math scores dive.

Bill Raden

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Marshall Tuck (left) photo by Andrew Blumenfeld; Tony Thurmond photo by LightSlash.

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

With the California Schools Superintendent race in its final stretch, the Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond campaigns traded angry broadsides last week over each camp’s ads. The sparring began with an October 12 cease and desist letter from Tuck over a Thurmond-produced TV spot claiming Tuck “is a paid backer of charter schools,” supported by Betsy DeVos and “financed by the same billionaires behind” the Trump education secretary. Thurmond in turn called on “Tuck and his supporters” to take down a cable TV ad that falsely suggested the progressive assemblymember was responsible for West Contra Costa Unified’s fiscal problems and had earned an Obama administration “reprimand” over district mishandling of sexual harassment during his term on WCCUSD’s school board.

Though an EdVoice fact-check slapped both with truth demerits and singled out the reprimand claim as “false,” it noted that some of the billionaire donors behind the now-$26 million raised by the two pro-Tuck EdVoice charter school super PACs have also written checks to a pair of DeVos nonprofits. Thurmond spokesperson Maddie Franklin, who said the campaign stands by its spot, added that as recently as 2015, Tuck was still a salaried board member of the Eli Broad- and Walton Family-funded charter lobby group Parent Revolution. Tuck spokesperson Andrew Blumenfeld was adamant that the campaign had no reason nor the legal means to even publicly call for EdVoice to pull the anti-Thurmond ad. “Not only don’t we have control,” Blumenfeld told Learning Curves, “it would be illegal for me to … communicate with them in any way about the content they produce. We’re talking about two very different things.”

Above: Thurmond attacks Tuck. Below: Tuck attack Thurmond.

Some 1.4 million American adults who define their gender as different from their biological sex at birth woke last weekend to headlines announcing that the Trump administration is set to define their sexual identities “out of existence.” On Monday, Donald Trump confirmed he is considering redefining gender as fixed at birth by a person’s genitalia. The move would reverse, among other things, the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance recognizing gender largely as an individual’s choice under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that bans sex discrimination in schools.

Last year, Betsy DeVos withdrew that guidance in one of her first acts as education department chief. Since then, Inside Higher Ed reports, numerous colleges have failed to enforce transgender rights in disputes over admissions policies and access to bathrooms, residence halls and athletic programs. And an August investigation by Politico found many complaints by elementary and secondary trans students and their families have been dismissed by the U.S. education department.

College entrance exam results for 2018 high school graduates are in and the news isn’t great. Math scores plunged to an average of 20.5 —their lowest level in more than 20 years, according to exam data released last week by ACT in its annual report on college readiness. Average composite ACT scores fell in all racial and ethnic groups except for Asian-Americans. “We’re at a very dangerous point,” ACT chief executive officer Marten Roorda told EdWeek.

Not so fast, averred former National Council of Teachers of Mathematics president Matt Larson: “As a country, we’ve reached the limits of what we can get out of standards alone. We need to pay more attention to what is taking place in the classroom.” In a separate statement, Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, which tracks testing trends, went further, declaring, “This provides additional evidence that K-12 test-and-punish policies pursued by the federal government and many states have not improved readiness for higher education.”


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