EVER WONDER WHY Los Angeles schools are flailing about so badly? Look not in the classroom but at the top: a school board that places politics, union priorities and personal payback over students time and again.
All appeared to play a role in the board's unconscionable vote Thursday to reject the Green Dot charter-school operation's application for eight new high schools. Even though Green Dot founder Steve Barr runs unionized schools, United Teachers Los Angeles has never liked him because teachers in Green Dot Schools are not aligned with UTLA. Barr insists on a labor agreement that allows him to set reasonable work rules and fire bad teachers; UTLA won't stand for it.
Parents and students from Watts, where Green Dot planned to open the schools, pleaded for approval, one girl in tears because of the physical violence she suffers at her public school. The board also ignored its own staff and the board member, Mike Lansing, who represents Watts. Green Dot's campuses are oases of safety, and they outpace nearby public schools academically.
The response from board members Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, Jon Lauritzen and Julie Korenstein -- the three who kept approval from going forward -- indicated how much priority they put on such matters. The board has a contentious history with Barr, who put up a fight two years ago to take over faltering Jefferson High. He settled for opening schools in the vicinity, but the public battle was bruising, especially when L.A. Unified teachers jumped ship to join Green Dot. Then Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has alienated the board with his bid for more power over the district, endorsed Green Dot's model.
The trio of board members appear unprepared to let such slights pass. This page recently endorsed Poindexter LaMotte as someone who, despite various failings, could think independently. Consider us chastened. Voters will get a chance to remove Lauritzen, the most anti-reform member of the board, from office in May. Korenstein, who admits she's bothered by Green Dot's size (not a valid reason for rejection), said she wanted to wait until scores came in from its five newest campuses. Her explanation doesn't wash. Green Dot has a substantial record from its other campuses, and L.A. families are tired of waiting.
By law, charter applications must be considered on such substantive issues as whether the schools are sound financially and academically. Green Dot passes on both counts.
This situation called for a strong executive leader to lobby and even bully the board into compliance. Unfortunately, Supt. David L. Brewer lacks the political experience of his predecessor, Roy Romer. He'll have to be more assertive with his board if he is to achieve real reform.
Green Dot almost certainly will win its appeal at the county level, and that might be to its advantage. The district admits it does a sketchy job of overseeing its charters -- one reason the board, at the same time it was rejecting Green Dot, approved a provisional extension for another charter school despite that school's abysmal academic record. Eventually, this frustrating moment in L.A. Unified history might lead the state to approve broad chartering powers for Green Dot.
But the time lag means that the eight new schools probably will have to wait an extra year. Once more, the losers are the students.