Amalgamation Proclamation

With a baseline of public sector services and benefits available to all, afforded by progressive taxation, we knit together diverse citizens of uneven means and needs to create community. The animating ethos of the public sector is empathetic collectivism. It empowers us to build a civil society despite our inequality and diversity.

Our national motto proclaims: E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

If you are among the fortunate, realizing extraordinary personal gains from our economic system, be sure to convey your outsized contributions to the collective with a spirit of gratitude for your prosperity, not with grudging contempt for your greater burden.

kevin_spacey_quote

To whom much is given, much is expected.

California’s local government agencies, including city and county administration, police, fire, libraries and public schools, are funded with property taxes assessed and collected by counties. And while the benefits of public agencies are evenly available to all, taxes to pay for them are unevenly imposed: only on residential and commercial property owners.

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Beauchman’s agenda: Usurpation

I’ve written before about SCCBOE’s October 2013 Charter Schools Study Workshop. I don’t remember seeing a meeting agenda. The discussion focused mostly on each of the SCCBOE members’ personal view of the role of SCCOE/SCCBOE vis-a-vis charters.

It’s not news to a frequent reader that I believe charter schools have always been intended as special remedies for traditional public schools or districts that suffer from intractable shortcomings and deprive students of a quality education.

The stated legislative objectives of the CA Charter Schools Act of 1992 never included establishment of a parallel system of quasi-private voucher schools operated under the aegis of ‘public education.’ It didn’t intend for charters to attack, undermine or replace California’s traditional school districts, yet sitting members of SCCBOE clearly feel it’s their duty to impose an aggressive pro-charter political agenda on our local districts.

When I listened to this audio recording from the meeting I was surprised by some of what I heard from each member. Here’s SCCBOE President Leon Beauchman’s quote regarding new charter petitions from the Oct. 2013 Charter Schools Study Workshop:

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County Board: “Voters are lame”

disalvoRelax. Take a seat.

In today’s episode of “You Gotta be @#$%^& Kidding Me” we hear Member Joe Di Salvo discussing consolidating the 31 Santa Clara County public school districts and expressing his desire to work on a subcommittee organized for this purpose led by Member Leon Beauchman. Here’s a short audio clip from the February 20, 2013 meeting of the Santa Clara County Board of Education. Please listen.

Whether the source is national (Broad Foundation), state (Cal Charters) or local (Reed Hastings), there’s a lot of big time pro-charter money being poured into Santa Clara county to create a crucible for “education reform.” (More hereSometimes the influence of political funding can be shocking, like when elected SCCBOE Members say that democratic local control over public education is broken and voters are powerless to do anything about it.

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In their own words

Most of us vote on election day to put people into public office but then unplug from politics and government until the next election cycle. I know people who spend a lot more personal time than I do attending school board or city council meetings.

scrutinyGovernment meetings are open to the public but few ordinary folk attend. Monitoring “the people’s business” is important and somebody needs to do it. 

The next best thing to attending a meeting of a public agency may be listening to audio recordings of meetings, and in some ways, may even be preferable.

If I attend a government meeting as a citizen observer, I might not be able to track all the details of a back-and-forth discussion, especially if I’m taking notes. With a good audio recording, I can listen at my leisure, reflect on points made, and as necessary, rewind and replay as often as I wish.

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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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Moving the goal posts

magic-trickIt’s an old rhetorical trick, but in skilled hands it still works like new.

Like magic.

Here’s an argument for “education reform” and charters from the Broad Foundations that few people would take major issue with (assuming it’s factually correct):

“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.”

Now here’s a clever pivot by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) that skirts a requirement of unmet student need. In its November 13, 2013 amicus brief filed in support of the California Charter Schools Association in a lawsuit against LA Unified School District, the table of contents reads:

“The Charter Schools Act of 1992 was adopted in response to a growing crisis in public education.”

But their Summary of Argument reads:

“All too often, traditional public schools provide a dissatisfying one-size-fits-all model resistant to improvement.”

Poof! The justification for breaking our constitutional “common” public school model just morphed from crisis “We must do it for the children” to preference “We must do it because… well, because people like choice.” It’s just more satisfying, even if it’s not right.

shopaholicQ:  “I’m accustomed to choosing ordinary things like my car, a restaurant or my smartphone. Why don’t I get to choose something as important as which public schools my children attend?”

A:  Because public education operates by different principles than a private market for goods and services. In the public domain, we prohibit the discrimination and inequality inherent in a market system because all citizens are entitled to an equal measure of benefit from our laws and public institutions. In public life, we’re responsible to and for one another under a social contract. This is why when some students are shortchanged or under-served by their public schools, we create supplementary or remedial programs to ensure they get a fair share—and a fair shot at life.

But I digress.

At least the Broad Foundation was unambiguous by defining the dropout problem as “one-third of students.” You have to marvel at all the ambiguity from PLF:

  • All too often
  • Dissatisfying
  • Resistent to improvement

There’s something for just about everyone inclined to be even a little bit critical of traditional public schools. Any school parent who’s honest about their experience will say they’ve been “dissatisfied” at one time or another with their teacher or their school, and “all too often” can mean as little as “once.” Given typical parental focus on their children’s achievement, who among us would say they’ve never felt a program, teacher or administrator was “resistant to improvement”?

This is the tap root of privatization of public education, a vital civic institution, obviously related to The Great Misdirection. It’s also known as the “consumerization” of public education. The underlying justification for “education reform” and charter schools has become less about leveling the playing field for under-served and struggling students and more about giving parents free market, consumer choice for the sake of… choice itself.

But “choice for choice’s sake” can—and is—being deployed by parents to create separate, unequal quasi-private “public schools of choice” that segregate students by ethnicity, socio-economic status, educational achievement or other “consumer” preferences. Choice unrestrained by demonstrable educational need breaks the back of our equity-based constitutional system of common schools.

Here’s basically how it works: I grab your attention by railing against the moral injustice of under-achieving public schools and high school dropout rates, then I get you nodding your head “Yes” as I prescribe a “choice and charter” remedy for these urgent social ills, then with a pandering appeal to your self-interest, it’s a trivial challenge to convince you that every parent and child is entitled to public education on their own terms.

Voila! Magically, everyone is entitled to public “school choice” even if they’re not struggling in school or at risk of dropping out. Even if they’re on the ‘winning’ side of the achievement gap. Isn’t it just fair that we all have equal right to choose?

Did you see what I did there? I moved the goal posts on the “reform” argument, and you ate it up. Yum.

Almost nothing sells like vanity and self-interest, especially when it’s “for the children,” swaddled in moral indignation, victimhood and entitlement.

Tastes great. Less integrated.

We’re going to need a bigger boat

Bruce Barton’s Nov. 20 Los Altos Town Crier editorial asks, “Can’t we all just get along?” and correctly adds that we’re all exhausted from this decade-long BCS-LASD conflict, which has been intensely “us versus them” since the beginning. For one side to gain has meant that the other must lose, and we’ve been searching desperately for a win-win.

But the conflict seems to be getting worse, not better. www.tinyurl.com/bcs-lawsuits

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BCS-LASD lawsuits are multiplying, tense public negotiations over facilities are ongoing, peace-making gatherings were held in church, district-run citizen focus groups held, grass roots citizen activist committees formed, parent protests and photo ops staged, political campaigns launched, government leaders enlisted, full-page ads and magazine articles expertly crafted, endless citizen letters and responses have been lobbed online and off.

It seems we’ve tried almost everything to bridge this community divide.

I used to think very much like Barton, but I now suspect I was wrong. No amount of small town kumbayah seems to mitigate the ferocity with which BCS leadership opposes and confronts the LASD leadership and community at large, in person, in the press or in court.

I know I won’t win any popularity contests by saying so (and I could be wrong again) but I’m going to predict that this community conflict isn’t going away any time soon.

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My reason is simple yet daunting: This is no quaint suburban kerfuffle. Major external forces promote this community divide. BCS vs LASD is an important strategic battleground in an expansive CA charter school movement propelled by significant political and financial interests from far beyond our community.

For charter insiders and promoters, Bullis Charter School is the sharp point of the spear in the California movement, so even if we agreed locally to end things peaceably, outside interests would likely interfere to discourage such a settlement. There’s simply too much money, ego and legal precedent at stake to allow this cat fight to end. We must look up and out—beyond our city limits—and take aim at the real causes.

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Like Captain Quint, we’re going to need a bigger boat.

Of the people, by the people, for the people?

lincoln-gettysburg-address-speech-analysisIt may come as a shock to the Los Altos School District community to hear that it doesn’t control its public schools. We think we control our schools, we love to brag about how our activist and generous community sustains its amazing schools, but in a very real sense we’re not in control.

You might argue that we do have democratically controlled public education because LASD voters elect our district Trustees, and you’d be somewhat right. We believe our elected Trustees defend our collective interests and run our schools, but this belief is somewhat misplaced. Even our democratically elected Trustees do not have full control over LASD’s finances, facilities and curriculum.

In important ways, the Santa Clara County Board of Education exerts greater control over LASD than our locally elected Trustees through their interpretation and administration of California Charter School Law.

The seven members of the county Board of Education are elected but LASD voters have only minority influence over just the single ‘Area 1’ member since LASD represents a minority of the total Area 1 voter base. The Area 1 representative on the county Board of Education is elected by voters from Palo Alto Unified School District, Los Altos School District, Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Mountain View-Whisman Elementary School District, a majority of the Sunnyvale Elementary School District and the Fremont High School District.

Even if 100% of LASD voters opposed an ‘Area 1’ candidate, if enough voters in the rest of Area 1 supported them, they would win election to the county Board and LASD voters would hold no sway over the outcome of the race.

Because LASD voters have no meaningful representation on the county Board of Education, in a very real sense, when the County Board of Education asserts control over LASD, it effectively disenfranchises LASD voters and suspends democratic control over our state-leading public schools.

County Board policies may be created that we cannot meaningfully influence, decisions may be taken that oppose or even override the majority will of LASD voters and burdens may be placed on LASD that undermine our top-notch public schools, but there is almost nothing our community can do about it. This has been our situation for at least ten years, and arguably since 1992, but most of us don’t understand that it’s true or how it could happen.

California Charter Law in the hands of the current Santa Clara County Board of Education represents a real and present danger for local democracy and traditional public education. 

LASD is not uniquely compromised in this way. The same is true of voters, Trustees and school districts throughout Santa Clara County. Until Charter Law or the members of the Santa Clara County Board of Education change, this threat to democratically-controlled public education will persist for LASD and all other public school districts in Santa Clara County.

Santa Clara County Board of Education