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Have school officials closed the door to community input on 50 new schools?

Locking opponents out of a meeting to discuss how to manage the schools suggests an innovative education proposal is falling victim to the same old politics.

August 14, 2009

Billed as a town hall meeting, the gathering of selected parents in Boyle Heights this week more closely resembled a mayoral pep rally to promote the idea of opening 50 new Los Angeles-area schools to outside management.

We heartily support the proposal too, as one of the most visionary ideas to come along in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The resolution by school board Vice President Yolie Flores Aguilar, which the board will vote on this month, would allow organizations as varied as charter operators, parent groups and teachers unions to submit proposals to run any of the 50 schools scheduled to open in the next few years. With its emphasis on engaging parents in decisions about how their children's schools should be run, the measure could augur a new era of community involvement as well as pioneer novel educational ideas. We're also delighted to see Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa visibly involved in schools again, and spending time and political capital on student-centered reforms.

From the start, though, we have expressed concerns about whether school leaders could overcome their history of inside politicking and behind-the-scenes deal-making in order for the proposal to fulfill its promise. A couple of recent events offer worrisome signs that this isn't happening.

One was the town hall meeting, whose audience was largely collected through one of the main instigators of the 50-schools proposal, Parent Revolution, a coalition of established charter operators such as Green Dot Public Schools. These operators, as well as the mayor, are expected to gain control of many of the new schools.

Rather than holding a community event open to all, organizers literally locked out teachers and parents who oppose the proposal, while inside Villaraigosa cheered Flores Aguilar's resolution before 50 or so parents, many of whom wore Parent Revolution T-shirts. The mayor later defended the lockout, saying that opponents had disrupted a meeting the night before. There was indeed some minor rude behavior, but that's a poor reason to thwart dissent. Though Villaraigosa correctly says that it's hard to have a worthwhile conversation when one side is unruly, it's also hard to have a worthwhile conversation when everyone is saying the same thing.

Parent Revolution's leaders can pick their audiences if they like, but it erodes public trust -- and ours -- in a worthwhile proposal when an organization that stands to gain from it shuts out opponents. One father standing outside the meeting claimed that his son with special education needs had not been welcomed at Roosevelt High School, which is run by the mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. By lending his presence to a closed meeting, Villaraigosa adds to the perception that the 50-schools proposal is a quiet agreement among political allies rather than a true attempt to include parents in educational decision-making.

Making matters worse was the school district's recent decision to transfer a brand-new high school in Boyle Heights to the mayor, without consulting parents or teachers and without board approval. The Flores Aguilar resolution is supposed to create a process for designating school management that is transparent, objective and based on community involvement as well as the applicants' record of running successful schools. At the same time, the district is giving a new school to a partnership that has one year of experience, and a rocky year at that, with no parental involvement or public discussion. If the district already is empowered to give schools to whomever it wants without public discussion or vote, the 50-schools resolution is redundant.

In all likelihood, the new school belongs with the mayor's partnership. It doesn't expand his reach in the school district; the campus was built to alleviate crowding and will enroll mostly students in the attendance boundaries already under the mayor's purview. But the way the transfer was carried out was dismaying; it makes Flores Aguilar's resolution look like window dressing for a plan to hand schools to powerful players.

It would be a shame to see a progressive idea fall victim to the usual shenanigans within L.A. Unified. The 50-schools resolution could help reinvigorate neighborhoods that have suffered for years with overcrowded, dilapidated, low-performing schools. But if it becomes another excuse to play the same old games, students will once again be the losers.

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