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Charter schools' cheating scandal teaches a disheartening lesson

Decisions surrounding L.A. Unified's now closed Crescendo charter school chain indicate the adults were thinking more about themselves than about the students.

August 24, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • In March 2011, John Allen, left, Crescendo charter schools' founder, walks out of a board of directors meeting and into closed session amid jeers and boos.
In March 2011, John Allen, left, Crescendo charter schools' founder,… (Los Angeles Times )

I planned to write an upbeat column about education this weekend, something to put us in a good mood as the kids begin a new school year: Test scores are rising, new schools are opening and plastic foam trays have been banned from lunchrooms.

But when I read Times reporter Howard Blume's article Saturday, about the fallout from a charter school cheating scandal, I couldn't stop thinking about it.

It seems we're stuck on stupid again.

It's not the cheating that stays with me, though that saga is troubling enough.

It's the aftermath that makes it a scandal — an example of how power and politics and personalities can hijack the conversation about what is best for children.

Two years ago, teachers at Crescendo charter schools were ordered to sneak a look at standardized tests and drill their students on actual questions, so the children would do well on the exams.

The order to cheat came from the charter chain's founder and chief executive and was conveyed through principals who raised no objections. Some teachers complied, others balked. At least one was outraged enough to alert Los Angeles Unified.

Then the school district, which monitors 200 charter campuses, got to hemming and hawing about how

to punish the charter chain.

And it came down to not what's best for children, but what suits the agendas of adults.

School board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte began lobbying to save the job of Crescendo CEO John Allen. Allen was a friend of hers and directed the choir at her church.

Her pull was enough to persuade then-Supt. Ray Cortines to back off a demand that Crescendo fire Allen. LaMotte had something the superintendent needed: clout with the teachers union; she'd been elected with their financial support, and Cortines didn't want to alienate her.

So a decision that ought to have been straightforward — How do we deal with a veteran school leader who may have pushed his teachers to cheat? — came to rest instead on political and personal loyalties.

Allen got a six-month suspension. And Los Angeles Unified officials punished Crescendo by requiring ethics training for everyone.

::

After The Times wrote about the cheating scandal, the L.A. Board of Education reacted by voting to shut down Crescendo. Crescendo's board then voted to fire Allen, but it was too late to save the chain. The closure of its schools last summer sparked the sort of finger-pointing that obscures whatever lessons might be learned from all that had gone wrong.

"The case became a political football," recalled A.J. Duffy, who was the teachers union president back then.

As the district tossed that football around, Duffy took to the field himself. He tried to craft a deal to keep the charters open after recruiting its teachers to join United Teachers Los Angeles. "We just wanted to keep the teachers working." They were both heroes and victims, he said.

The scandal was held up as proof — depending on the perspective — of testing pressure run amok, the vulnerability of non-union instructors, the dangers of "market-based corporate" charters.

But the district's probe suggests, to me, a problem more basic than that: Too many people charged with guiding children put their own interests first.

Crescendo's operator was earning more than $160,000 a year to run six tiny schools with 1,400 students. He was desperate to grow Crescendo's brand by pushing test scores into the stratosphere.

Crescendo principals were afraid of losing jobs that were easier than anything they'd find in L.A. Unified.

And Crescendo's teachers were so inexperienced, they didn't know if it was wrong or right to look at the tests before giving them.

"They were young people living paycheck to paycheck, who desperately needed work," Duffy said.

I don't like to think that my children's teachers might be ruled by desperation. So I let Duffy steer me toward this positive:

"It was some of those same young teachers who were out in front," he said, "putting themselves in harm's way, trying to find their voice by telling the truth about what went on."

::

Consider me determined in this column to find a happy ending.

The best thing to come out of this scandal may be the new charter school, Apple Academy, that sprang from Crescendo's ashes.

It employs half a dozen teachers who once worked for Crescendo and are committed to working with students in South L.A.

And it's been organized and supported by a classically oddball alliance, educators who've always been on opposite sides: the teachers union's Duffy and his onetime nemesis Caprice Young, a former L.A. school board president who spent years advocating for charter schools and battling the union.

This time, she and Duffy "worked together with the teachers," Young said. "They were really anxious to prove themselves, to show they could run great schools with integrity, if they could get out from under [Crescendo's governing] board."

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