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Learning Curves

Learning Curves: New Column Reports on the Education Wars

If privatization is making American education the Wild West for those wishing to profit off children using public dollars, then Los Angeles Unified is its Tombstone.

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Bill Raden




L.A. School Board Photo: Bill Raden

Editor’s Note: Today Capital & Main’s education reporter, Bill Raden, begins a new weekly column covering the contentious, ever-changing landscape of California’s education system. A staccato-paced selection of news items, profiles and dish, “Learning Curves” will report on everything from charter school controversies in K-12 schools to the skyrocketing costs of attending college. Other issues will include school funding, equity, and the intersection of education and inequality.

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We wanted the launch of Learning Curves, Capital & Main’s new weekly roundup of education inequality headlines, to be a Golden State affair. But the week’s leading education story turned out to be national: The unusually copious ideological paper trail left by D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s hard-right choice to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony “Swing Vote” Kennedy. Politico reported that Kavanaugh favors —

One measure of the cost to California from privatization came out in May. Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts compared the current school budgets in Oakland, San Diego and San Jose — three of the state’s most chartered-up and financially stressed school districts — with a hypothetical alternative in which all students remained enrolled in traditional public schools. The difference, parsed by the state’s Local Control Funding Formulas, became the privatization price tag. The $57.3 million calculated for Oakland Unified, which claims the state’s highest percentage of charter enrollment, made up both its 2017 shortfall and paid off the $40 million still owed to California from its $100 million bailout and state takeover in 2003.

That kind of policy math has earned California a D+ in last month’s Grading the States report card, released by the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

“[California] is near the bottom of the country when it comes to accountability and transparency,” researcher Carol Burris explained to Learning Curves. “California is one of only four states that allow for-profit charters, and even its non-profit charters can be run by for-profit corporations. … It is the Wild West for those who wish to make a profit off kids using public dollars.”

If so, the Tombstone in that Wild West is Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s largest charter school district in sheer enrollment, presided over by a pro-charter school board majority and its newly handpicked, no-experience-required superintendent, the Wall Street financier Austin Beutner. One vote taken at Tuesday’s board meeting turned into an OK Corral moment.

The Los Angeles global law firm Latham & Watkins won a conflict-of-interest waiver vote to do “realignment” work for the superintendent, thanks in part to an ethics nod by pro-charter District 5 board member Ref Rodriguez. The firm has frequently sued the district for millions on behalf of the California Charter School Association (CCSA), while Rodriguez has been under the cloud of three felony charges and 25 misdemeanor counts related to alleged money laundering from his 2015 election.

Ref also helped shoot down a CCSA-opposed local parcel tax measure proposal on Tuesday. Aimed for the November ballot and designed to take a significant bite — and much of the anticipated classroom sting — out of a $482.2 million shortfall projected for 2020-2021, the tax had already polled at an extraordinary 68 percent approval rating with voters.

“This is urgent now. If you wait, it may never happen,” former board president Jackie Goldberg exhorted after Beutner argued for putting it on the 2020 ballot instead.

The no vote may have had less to do with election timing than it did with “Hard Choices,” the financial restructuring blueprint released in June by a blue-ribbon task force chaired by none other than Austin Beutner. That report targeted district employees’ compensation, pensions and health care for “realignment,” but its presumptive sense of urgency would definitely not be served by a parcel tax rescue.

Meanwhile, United Teachers Los Angeles, which has been without a contract for over a year, last week singled out the task force report when it formally filed an impasse with the California Public Employment Relations Board. (The union later agreed to return to the bargaining table July 24.) Stay tuned.

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Learning Curves

A Topsy-Turvy Week for Charter Schools and School-Choice Tax Credits

A teachers’ pension fund is in the money . . . Is a Kevin De León bill in the IRS’s crosshairs? . . . The State Board of Education greenlights yet another Oakland charter school.

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Bill Raden




Could the Republican tax law turn neovouchers, favored by Betsy DeVos and others, into road kill? (Photo: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“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


California’s public school and community college teachers got good news Friday when the now-$223.8 billion California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) posted a nine percent return for the 2017-18 fiscal year, beating its official seven percent discount rate for the second year running. Coming on the heels of the robust 8.6 percent return announced last week by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the twin earnings reports should buy some political breathing space for public sector pensions in California, where retirement security for public employees continues to top neoliberal hit lists.

“When public sector pension funds hit their mark or do better than the market, [the anti-union media] downplay it, and every time they go below the mark, it’s ‘the sky is falling and [we] have to take everybody’s pensions away,'” chairman of Californians for Retirement Security Dave Low quipped to Learning Curves. (Disclosure: Low sits on this website’s board of directors.)

On the other hand, the L.A. Times reported this week that so-called neovouchers, which have been embraced by Betsy DeVos and are popular with school-choice proponents, are among more than 100 charitable tax-credit programs now endangered by IRS blowback to dueling tax measures from DC Republicans and resistance states like California.

Proposed IRS rules that target blue state legislative workarounds to the $10,000 cap for state and local income taxes (SALT) in last year’s $1.5 trillion, Republican tax bill would almost certainly also eliminate deductions for neovouchers. In the crosshairs is SB 227, the public education charity proposed by state Senator and U.S. Senate candidate Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) that Californians could use to make up the pre-SALT write-offs.

“Even before the tax rule, there were things in this gray area between charity and public services,” explained Kim Rueben, a Public Policy Institute of California adjunct fellow and Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center senior fellow. “If they’re going to try and put a bright line in and say that people can’t take this as a charitable deduction because of the value in terms of savings from their state taxes, that same value is already accruing to people across this country from these existing tax credits.”

Charter school politics don’t get more topsy-turvy than in Sacramento, where the State Board of Education (SBE) is charged with doing good for California’s 6.2 million-student system of public schools, but which last week nudged Oakland’s financially stricken school district closer to the brink by saddling it with another new charter school that parents, students, the historically pro-charter OUSD board and an Alameda County Grand Jury say it neither needs nor can afford.

“It shows how disconnected they are from what’s going on in our cities … or what’s happening with underfunded public schools in California,” said activist Mona Treviño of the green light given at SBE’s July 12 meeting for Latitude charter high school to open its doors in the fall.

The unexpected at the board’s otherwise business-as-usual session came with a mea culpa offered by the state’s chief deputy superintendent of public instruction, Glen Price, who also called for “modernizing” 1998’s dated AB 544, the Reed Hastings-lobbied law that transformed California’s formerly benign Charter School Act into a poison pill for districts, by making it illegal for authorizers such as local school boards to consider the financial damage charters inflict on their hosts.

“At some point we have to consider the whole ecosystem — the whole community that we’re operating in when making these decisions,” Price reasoned. “There’s no other area of local or community planning where we would not consider the financial impact of a decision.”

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