As the candidates made their opening statements and started to respond to the questions initially posed by students and then those in the audience, it became shocking clear how little the majority of these candidates for the top position in California public education actually know about what is going on in schools. That is with the notable exception of Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher in the Long Beach Unified School District, who had the rare qualities of intelligence and integrity that had her speaking truth instead of the vacuous edspeak sound bites mouthed by seasoned politician Gloria Romero- ideas that the California State Senator representing East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley must know to be false.
When it came to the question of charters, only Gutierrez had the integrity to point out that charters had few oversight controls. Furthermore, as I pointed out to all the candidates present who like Romero made opening statements praising Locke High School, Locke only had 539 API scores on the 2009 state assessments that were released last week, far below the 800 plus scores that more successful schools have little difficult achieving in more toney suburban communities. Diane Lenning a conservative who saw charters as "free choice that generate healthy competition," a position subscribed to by all the others except Gutierrez who pointed out that they were opaque entities with little or no effective democratic governance or better results.
While charter law is neutral, the way it is implemented is not and has more to do with their financial return for those who run them -- you can double your investment in 7 years by taking advantage of generous tax breaks and ultimately saddling the charter with huge rents to pay back the indebtedness. Projections on the privatization of public education show that this represents a potential $250 billion business for big corporations that are putting money into charter development because of little government oversight.
Grant McMicken, a math teacher from Salinas, pushed for autonomous local school districts as a way of dismantling the expensive 1000 school districts in the state and the personnel necessary to run them. He pointed out that the state could save $4.5 billion in the 30,000 positions that presently are needed to run these districts. What most of the candidates failed to realize was that large school districts like LAUSD were formed in 1903 as a response to corrupt charter-like small schools that existed at the time. The real issue is not big or small but oversight of public education- there are good arguments for both. What is needed in either is a real system of checks and balances necessary to stop a district like LAUSD with a budget bigger than that of the City of Los Angeles the ability to thwart regulation by the California Department of Education in expending vast sums of money to avoid real and effective oversight.
Lydia Guiterrez pointed out that less than half of the 6 to 7 billion dollars spend on public education by LAUSD actually goes to the classrooms. She proposed an internal audit based on her extensive contract administration background in dealing with government contracts before getting into teaching- she just might be able to pull off.
In addition, she had the guts to stand up to the fantasy that everybody is going to college- a lie that all LAUSD wonks continue to espouse even though 72% of their student are below the 50th percentile on API and other assessments. She pointed out that only 35% of the jobs in our society go to people with college educations and that the other 65% of the jobs are in vocations and technology. So why has LAUSD been allowed to systematically close down vocational education and technology programs in their high school? Furthermore, it is a whole lot easier to pay for a post secondary education if you have vocational skills than if you are trying to do so selling fast food or busing dishes.
Candidate David Nusbaum, a Gardena teacher, would probably have been my second choice for Superintendent of Public Instruction, because he recognized the inequitable funding of public schools and also sought to devolve power to local control. However, what he and the others except Gutierrez didn't understand were the reality of Jarvis-Gann lessening the property tax base, which is remains the major source of school funding, tax cuts for the rich, and the super majority that is now required to assess more taxes- not to mention the obscene amounts of money that continue to be wasted by LAUSD on running a television station or 8 empty local district offices.
Clearly the issue not brought up at this or other candidate forums is how you get generally more affluent and suburban White populations to pay for a system that they no longer use or get them to come back to public education with the social capital they have to insure LAUSD bureaucrats play by the rules.
What is problematic in truly reforming public education is that it has been dysfunctional for so long that it is clearly hard to have the in depth discussion about all the factors that must be considered with people who are themselves the product of this long failed system. An example of this is the difficulty of broaching the discussion of parent empowerment which so many of the candidates support. Just giving power to parents, who have no awareness of all aspects of why public education is failing and the historical context in which this has been allowed to take place, offers little hope of turning it around with true reform. Empowerment of parents must also include a very strong component of educating the parents about the vested interests of those who have kept public education serving the needs of bureaucrats, politicians, and vendors while never seriously considering what changes are necessary for actually turning around the system and making it responsible to the needs of students, parents, and educators and the exigencies of 21st century American society. Lydia Gutierrez has the intellect and empathy necessary to finally make sure that entities like LAUSD are finally held accountable.
I stayed around after the candidate event talking with parents and candidates who had attended. I was the last person in the hall talking to the security guards about how things were going at Locke, when we heard a gunshot from outside. The security guards pulled their guns and told me to wait inside, while they went outside to check things out. They called one of their patrol cars and had me escorted to the parking lot where I got into my car and drove away thinking about my own time going to an LAUSD school in the 1950s and 60s, before their was an LAUSD Police force or the private security that has brought down the violence on campus without as of yet succeeding with the education which would attack it at its source in the community.