John Swan: Building a bridge to… the Twilight Zone

Consider, if you will, a few things we know about Los Altos School District:

  • Its elementary and middle schools have been repeatedly recognized for consistent academic excellence by both the California and US Departments of Education.
  • It’s recognized by local and foreign educators, media, and private organizations as an innovative public school district in Silicon Valley.
  • It’s the only school district in its region with a Citizen’s Advisory Committee for Finance (CACF) that provides long-term budget and planning support.
  • It’s the only district in California awarded the GFOA Certificate of Achievement of Excellence in Financial Reporting each of the past 10 years.
  • It has been awarded the Meritorious Budget Award by the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) each year for the past 14 years.
  • Was rated the most financially efficient Basic Aid school district in California by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) at its 2010 (SF)² Spring Symposium.

Yet a certain anti-LASD contingent (that shall not be named) accuses LASD of being a stagnant, bloated government monopoly that resists innovation and isn’t equipped to prepare students for the realities of the 21 century… blah, blah, blah…  UGH!  ENOUGH!!

Doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo…

Sometimes, life here in Lake Wobegon feels more like… the Twilight Zone.

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What’s in a name? Maybe deception.

These people calling themselves “LASD Parents for Great Schools” donated more than $21,000 in one week to support pro-BCS candidates Martha McClatchie and John Swan.

I haven’t done a deep-dive on the list, but at a glance I see there’s a lot of overlap between this donor list and current and former BCS Foundation board and BCS School board members.

Recall that Martha McClatchie is a former LASD parent whose children now attend BCS. Martha volunteered for the BCS Foundation in 2012, completing and signing its 2012 IRS Form 990 as Principal Officer and Treasurer.

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Why not Martha? Her actions. (Part 1)

I’ve previously written about my experience with Martha McClatchie, and why I find her an ideologically inappropriate candidate for LASD Trustee. Ideology aside, there are a number of actions she has taken as a pro-BCS, anti-LASD activist that more then give me pause:

  1. Political flip-flop on BCS facilities litigation
  2. Obscuring BCS legal and PR expenditures
  3. Organizing a media stunt to shame LASD (coming soon)
  4. Close ties to charter movement leadership (coming soon)

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Student needs not applied

greenAt the October 2013 Charter Schools Study Workshop convened by the Santa Clara County Board of Education, new member Darcie Green asks a clarifying question about official Board Policy on Charter Schools.

“On page number one of the Policy, in Purpose and Scope: ‘In granting charter petitions the County Board shall give preference to schools best able to provide comprehensive learning experiences for academically low-achieving students.’ What does that mean to us? What does ‘preference’ mean? This is just my ignorance. I would say we give preference to charter schools, but how does that play out in our values as a Board?”

“Do we want to focus more on truly serving the academically needy student? Or does that word preference really not… I don’t know why it’s in there… it doesn’t seem to be what we do, so I don’t know way it’s in there. But I like that it’s in there.”

Uh oh, now you’ve done it. You asked a serious question, in public no less, about the County Board’s values and intent vis-a-vis serving unmet student needs, with a particular focus on under-served or academically low-achieving students.

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My, what big teeth you have

There is no confusion about the historical impetus for the California charter school movement: Californians had grown frustrated, even panicked, by the perception* that their public schools were failures and something needed to be done about it.

Enter the reformers.

In an article they wrote for the Phi Delta Kappan in 1996, former State Senator Gary Hart and Sue Burr, the sponsor and author of California’s Charter Schools Act of 1992, say a major, credible threat to public education had begun to coalesce: vouchers.

wolf-in-sheeps-clothingThe idea of school vouchers with libertarian portability of per-student funding, redeemable by private and even religious schools, was not new. It had been promoted by Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and other free-market economists and politicians since the 1950s. Proponents pointed to supposed failings of public schools and promoted abandoning the public-private dichotomy altogether on the idea that market competition for students and funding would lead to improved learning.

Hart and Burr wrote about the emerging California voucher movement, “This was not a modest voucher pilot proposal, but a full-blown effort to reconstitute public education in California.”

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The Reform acid test

The historical impetus for education reform was to provide extraordinary support for students on the ‘losing’ side of the achievement gap, and the idea of ‘charter’ schools came from expert educators within the public education system itself.

Today some reformers at least appear to ground their efforts in this view. Here’s a photo and quote from the Education section of The Broad Foundations’ 2011-12 annual report:

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 2.32.45 PM“America’s public schools determine the strength of our democracy, the health of our economy and the ability of our middle class to thrive. Yet with one-third of students dropping out and many of those who graduate from high school unable to succeed in college, our public schools are failing our nation.”

Here’s another synopsis of the historical justification for ‘education reform’ and charters:

  • High quality taxpayer-funded education is vital for the current and future success of our democracy and our economy and all students deserve equal access to it.
  • Some children struggle more than others in school, and family history and socio-economic status are the most predictive of student academic achievement.
  • We must do all we can to help low-achieving and under-privileged students be successful in school so that they become prosperous, contributing citizens.
  • If the standard academic program available to students fails to adequately prepare them for a successful future, an alternate program should be available to them.
  • By liberalizing rules of the public education system, school administrators, staff and parents can create alternative programs that meet the needs of struggling students.
  • The ‘charter school’ idea was originally conceived by expert educators as a novel remedy to help close the pernicious achievement gap.

The acid test of whether a reformer or charter school is legitimately aligned with the movement’s historic intent is if they offer and advocate for an admissions preference for students achieving below the mean in their school or district, for students on the ‘losing’ side of the achievement gap.

Any purported reformer of public education advocating for charters and privatization that serves students already on the ‘winning’ side of the achievement gap should be exposed as a fraud. Especially when they’re able to force their ‘reforms’ onto thriving and high-performing public school districts against majority will of the community and a democratically elected Board of Trustees.

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 9.58.19 AMIf the intent of education reform is to level the playing field for under-served students, then under-served students should be first in line to benefit.

In the words of the late Milton Friedman, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” When the results of an ‘education reform’ initiative are a widening of the achievement gap and re-emergence of racial and socio-economic segregation and discrimination in public education founded on equity, we’re rightly judged to have made a great mistake indeed.

The Great Misdirection

What I hear in this audio clip from the Santa Clara County Board of Education’s Oct. 19, 2013 Charter Schools Study Workshop is either an embarrassing muddle or an illuminating confession.

This Charter Schools Study Workshop was convened by the county Board to allow the SCCBOE to publicly air “the big questions” about charter schools in Santa Clara County. In addition to all seven member of the Board, County Superintendent Xavier De La Torre and members of his staff were in attendance, as were a number of district and charter administrators and Trustees. The complete 3-hour audio recording can be found here.

Here’s the setup: Previously during the meeting, Board Member Anna Song asked that all members of the County Board of Education express their views about SCCOE’s role in authorizing and overseeing charter schools. In this clip we’re treated to an empassioned response from Dr. Joseph Di Salvo, former SCCBOE President:


Either Joe Di Salvo doesn’t grok his non-sequitor or he lays bare The Great Misdirection.

California charter law is ideologically grounded in unmet student need but has morphed into a political weapon that allows activist, separatist parents to extract program concessions or outright independence from their district.

When the Charter School was invented 20 years ago—by expert educators, no less—it was meant to be a special remedy to help failing students stay in school and succeed. Today charter schools are the thrust of a privatization movement that is re-introducing racial and economic segregation to public education, and the largest study ever conducted of charter outcomes found charters to be no better or worse on average than district schools.

Free market “school choice” is fracturing traditional school districts and dividing communities, thinly veiled beneath the noble cloak: We must do it for the children.

disalvoDi Salvo begins by bemoaning the moral injustice of, and urgent need for (his) leadership to cure, a 40% Latino dropout problem in Santa Clara County. BTW, here’s the real data. He points blame at district boards for not capitalizing on parent activism to improve student outcomes. If local district boards did a better job capitalizing on parent energy and activism, he believes their schools would be more successful and SCCBOE wouldn’t need to intervene.

As evidence that district boards don’t respond to parent demands, Di Salvo bizarrely shares a 7-year old story of a non-Latino parent in a high-performing school district lobbying her Trustees unsuccessfully for two years for a Mandarin Immersion magnet program. The school district in question was Palo Alto Unified, the parent was current SCCBOE President Grace Mah.

Here’s the non-sequitor between Latino dropouts and Grace Mah’s Mandarin Immersion:

  • Mah’s children attended Palo Alto schools, widely regarded as a top-flight public school district. Not exactly evidence of unmet student need.
  • Mah’s children were already enrolled in an extra-curricular Mandarin language program, which she liked. The children’s language instruction needs were being met.
  • Mah tried many times to convince PAUSD to establish a Mandarin program, but the district repeatedly refused citing insufficient demand to justify it over other priorities.
  • Mah’s program was not intended to close an achievement gap or reduce dropouts, it was just one more programmatic choice for parents in a district already full of choice.

Grace Mah’s experience in Palo Alto is totally irrelevant to the county’s Latino dropout problem, but it’s a textbook example of how CA charter law is being used today to contravene democratic rule in public school districts up and down California. Joe Di Salvo holds up this long-running, bruising PAUSD battle as an example of “getting it right.”

The clear message from Di Salvo’s bluster is, “Parents should get anything they want from their districts, whenever they want it, and if district boards don’t give in, I’m fully prepared to usurp local control by approving charter petitions.”

Don’t let something as antiquated as democracy or the needs and constraints of the community at large keep you from eating first at the education trough. If your district board doesn’t give you what you want, threaten them with a charter. Lack of a choice program is itself reason enough to justify introducing a charter school against the community’s wishes.

This abusive, intrusive, anti-democratic approach to public education adminstration is maintained by Joe Di Salvo, current member and former President of the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

mahGrace Mah is the current President of the Santa Clara County Board of Education.