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Proposed State-Run STEM School Raises Questions, Suspicions

There are well over a hundred specialized STEM schools and programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District. So why are a handful of California politicians pushing to create a state-run STEM school in L.A.?




Copyright Capital & Main

A hastily revised bill introduced in Sacramento last month is attempting to address the state’s STEM crisis by adding a single new privatized state STEM school to California’s already contentious K-12 landscape. The plan to create an 800-student “State School for Instruction in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)” that would serve grades six through 12, and be located somewhere within Los Angeles County, has met heated resistance from public school advocates.

Part of their concern lies in just how much the proposed new breed of state STEM schools resembles charter schools, which are privately managed but taxpayer-funded. School districts have long contended that charters siphon off their higher achieving students while leaving the districts with less money to teach a larger percentage of far-needier kids.

Authored by Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra (D-San Fernando), Assembly Bill 1217 stipulates that the new STEM school would operate similarly. It would be managed by a private non-profit corporation and get its funding from the same combination of private philanthropy and the state ADA (average daily attendance) money that would follow its 800 students, probably from Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). (Boganegra has said he’d like to see the school located in downtown L.A.) For a district that is already the largest charter school authorizer in the nation and is still gun-shy after recently fending off a takeover attempt by billionaire school choice philanthropist Eli Broad, any scheme that promises further stratification is an existential threat.

The bill started life last spring as legislation that would have expanded teaching residency programs. But a July 11 press release from Bocanegra, who is also the leader of the Assembly’s so-called Moderate Democrat caucus, announced its startling change in direction. It touted the school as a pathway for “low-income and underrepresented communities in Los Angeles County [to pursue] STEM higher education and careers,” and as an answer to the lack of diversity in California’s expanding tech sector workforce. The press release also noted that “less than six percent of Silicon Valley tech engineers are African-American or Latino.”

Critics, however, say it is how the bill proposes to achieve that end — along with its murky factual grasp of the problems facing STEM education — that they find deeply troubling.

“I think that there’s a lot of agreement that it’s important for K-12 education to play some role in that,” University of California Los Angeles education professor John Rogers told Capital & Main.  But it’s not clear why you would want to have a new state governance structure over one small school.”

“There’s some political quid pro quos that are going on here,” third-year LAUSD school board member George McKenna offered in a phone call. “Far be it for me to speculate. I’m a recently elected official, and I don’t consider myself that politically astute. But I can read. And I know the difference between the sunshine and Shinola.”

“The economic devastation to the district is felt in ways they can’t see,” added McKenna. Even if you say [a state STEM school] was something that the local district would want to do, it lends itself to the separatism and the elitism of [creating] schools that only certain types of children will be anxious to apply to.”

John Rogers, education professor: “It’s not clear why you would want to have a new state governance structure over one small school.”

But the bill also moves beyond California’s existing charter law by stipulating that, rather than than being authorized and overseen by a local school board, the legislature would authorize the STEM school and the state schools superintendent would be responsible for its accountability. That, according to Sylvia Rousseau, emeritus professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, raises some red flags.

“The best protection to education as democracy is that we allow democratically elected school boards to govern the education of children under their jurisdiction,” Rousseau said. “When efforts like this have less control by local governing bodies, where it’s funded much more by private interests — or at least it’s sponsored by private interests with the opportunity to contribute heavily to it — it begins to redefine who has access to STEM education.”

“AB 1217 is an end-run around local control,” agreed education law attorney Sue Ann Salmon Evans in an email. “This is an effort to establish charters without the local district’s input (or local community, local employees, local unions, etc.).”

The existing charter law, Salmon Evans pointed out, only allows the SBE to sidestep local review of a charter school petition in the case of a so-called “statewide benefit charter,” which is a sort of charter franchise empowered to open schools anywhere in the state. The catch is that the SBE must first determine that the proposed charter school would be providing instructional services that cannot otherwise be provided by a charter school operating in only one school district, or only in one county. That is obviously not the case with STEM curricula.

“There already are a whole host of STEM schools across the state, and in particular in Los Angeles, the area that it is targeting,” Rogers explained. “[AB 1217] fails to acknowledge that fact. It presents this as a whole new idea.”

In fact, LAUSD alone lists 97 STEM magnet schools on its website in what looks to be a fairly even distribution across the city’s lower-income neighborhoods. An informal survey of the California Department of Education’s charter school database also turned up at least 34 charter schools in Los Angeles County that specified “math” or “science” or “STEM” in their name.

The STEM crisis has less to do with student enrollment than it does a shortage of qualified STEM teachers.

The bill comes at a time when the very existence of a STEM crisis has been hotly debated, with some alleging that the issue has been distorted since the Obama era in pushes by Silicon Valley tech companies to expand H-1B visas — temporary immigration permits for skilled workers — that have depressed wages for U.S. workers with advanced science degrees. Nevertheless, a 2014 study by the Public Policy Institute of California estimated that more than half of new jobs in the state will be in industries likely to face a shortage of workers with some college education but less than a bachelor’s degree, including STEM-related occupations in health care and social assistance, and scientific and technical services.

In educational terms, however, the crisis has less to do with STEM enrollment than it does a shortage of qualified STEM teachers. A report this year by the Learning Policy Institute noted that between 2012 and 2016 alone, the proportion of California mathematics and science teachers with substandard credentials or permits doubled from 20 percent to nearly 40 percent — even as the number of fully credentialed math and science teachers dropped from 3,200 to only 2,200.

That decline has many implications, insisted Rousseau, and it raises larger questions that would be better addressed at the state level — such as whether California is supporting teachers and adequately compensating them for the value of their work.

“I think we tend to always try to solve the problem before we understand the problem,” said Rousseau. “So I would say that’s a great way for a state board of the office of education to engage in a period of inquiry about why STEM education seems to be a problem in local districts. Offering an alternative never solves the problem. It only addresses some symptoms and rescues a few children without addressing the systemic issue.”

The bill, which is being co-sponsored by State Senator Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada), is slated to be taken up by the Senate Appropriations Committee when the legislature returns from its summer recess August 21.

Photo above by DHendrix73. Homepage photo by Ida Irby.

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