De La Torre’s fateful recommendation

chuck_weisDe_La_TorreFormer Santa Clara County Schools Superintendent Charles Weis (left) was relieved of duty when Xavier De La Torre (right) was hired as his replacement in June 2012. Weis had his share of problems at SCCOE (and at his previous gig), some of which are chronicled here.

De La Torre came to SCCOE after a three year stint as Superintendent of Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas. At their April 3, 2013 meeting, less than a year after landing at SCCOE, De La Torre presented a ‘white paper‘ to the County Board developed in conjunction with CSCA. It’s an overview of the charter school landscape in Santa Clara County, with typical demographic stats and standardized test scores for each of the county’s charters.

What I found most interesting were the Superintendent’s recommendations:

“Given the position that the SCCOE Board of Education has taken in being “bold” and “courageous” in authorizing countywide charters as well as those charters that come to them on appeal, and the voiced concern of creating charter school “urban sprawl” one of the key recommendations from this preliminary overview is for the SCCOE to develop a strategic or master plan for charter schools. A more detailed look at where future charter schools are to be located as well as the student grade levels to be served is certainly warranted in addition to what it is that charters offer that make them unique.”

Here the Superintendent steps in front of a political bus by saying the county board needs a master plan based on the specific needs of Santa Clara County. You get that? A plan based on demonstrable need. That would be a major departure from this board’s politics and practice of eagerly pursuing new charter applications almost without regards for student needs and even if the application is unapprovable. De La Torre continues:

“Although the SCCOE Board has embraced the charter school movement, many local districts do not necessarily welcome the influx of charter schools. The SCCOE has an opportunity to work collaboratively with the districts and charter schools to not only share best practices but to ensure that every student, regardless of where he or she may be enrolled, has access to the best possible education. To this end, the SCCOE is well positioned to facilitate identifying and disseminating innovative practices in education.”

Again, De La Torre’s recommendation is at odds with SCCBOE politics and practice. Locally elected public school district boards in Santa Clara County are fed up with the county office/board getting into their business and aggressively promoting competitive charter schools. They’re not feeling a ton of collaborative spirit flowing from SCCOE. Perhaps most importantly, De La Torre correctly points out that focusing on student needs and sharing best practices between schools of all types throughout the county is a worthy and proper function of the county office, which is kinda hard to pull off if you’re sowing seeds of division and conflict under the guise of ‘free market competition.’

“Additionally, increased data transparency, particularly with regard to students with  special needs, English Language Learners, and students of color is critical if charter schools are going to be held accountable as are district schools. The SCCOE needs to be able to better understand shifts in enrollment in the charter schools that occur during the year, often during times of state assessments, as well to be able to identify and follow cohorts of students in charter schools.”

Transparency and accountability? Yes! Taxpayers have every right to know how their taxes are being spent by charter schools, the same as by their public schools. Just because a charter operator may be a private corporation, public accountability doesn’t magically fall away when it takes possession of its public funding. The public wants to know that all students are being served fairly and equitably, that they’re getting a quality education, that performance and enrollment statistics are not being ‘fudged.’ If we’re going to run this charter school experiment with the pubic’s money, the public demands to see the data, and the data better be clean.

“Finally, the responsibility for monitoring and appropriately supporting the increasing numbers of charter schools authorized by the SCCOE Board of Education cannot be overlooked. The SCCOE needs to identify how to provide the increased oversight to ensure that the SCCOE authorized charter schools are not only legally compliant with regards to human resources, finance and facilities but are providing and delivering the quality curriculum and instruction for students to reach their potential and achieve academic success. A coordinated and responsive team, including personnel from curriculum and instruction, human resources, finance, facilities and legal oversight, is needed to provide the necessary support for the continuing success of charter schools in Santa Clara County.”

Imagine that, a call for greater emphasis on charter oversight by the county Superintendent himself. De La Torre specifically points to the increasing number of SCCBOE-approved charters as a driver of increasing demand for oversight capacity, but also thinks expansively about the scope of his oversight responsibilities. De La Torre concludes his recommendation with the notion that the County Office of Education’s active, thorough cross-functional involvement with charter schools is necessary for their success, contrary to charter orthodoxy which claims that charters are empowered and more successful because they have less regulatory governmental overhead and oversight.

Taking this recommendation at face value, to me it seems clear De La Torre either:

  1. Didn’t grok the aggressively pro-charter politics of SCCBOE, or
  2. Believed he had a strong enough hand to drive fundamental philosophical change within SCCOE/SCCBOE, or
  3. Didn’t fully appreciate how tenuous his tenure really was, or
  4. Read the political writing on the wall, and intentionally set himself on a path toward a subsequent assignment by making this bold recommendation

There’s about a zero percent chance this Superintendent’s recommendation was ever going to be accepted and adopted by our current Santa Clara County Board of Education. To the contrary, within a year of this recommendation, De La Torre became the latest “Former Santa Clara County Schools Superintendent” and SCCBOE had been sued by four school districts over attempts to force zoning changes to accommodate new charters.

So much for greater collaboration, oversight and transparency.

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