Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Of GOD, Students, and Teachers

When I worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District and was mildly promoted within it, I ran across a term that exemplified that district's culture: I learned that, when some apparently nonsensical decision descended upon us mere mortals working at school sites, and we couldn't determine its rationale, we could be told, "It's for GOD," and were supposed to accept that. The inside information needed to interpret this was that "GOD" stood for "the Good Of the District".

Yesterday I learned, in an interesting conversation with a representative of the Irvine Unified School District, that my proposal for One World Secondary School around here would be unlikely to pass--not because there was anything wrong with the proposal; the reviewer thought its ideas were very good. The key point, behind the cover of "equity" (some concern that if they offered a very good program at one school and couldn't offer it at all schools to all students, they shouldn't offer it anywhere), was the financial good of our local district, which, like every district in California, has been operating on pitifully reduced funding. So the fact that the school idea is meritorious, and would obviously offer some missing competition and choice for families in Orange County, was considered irrelevant, if it wasn't for the Good Of the District.

I give up on trying to start a charter school, at least for now. Having local districts approve new schools is like having local McDonald's franchises approve new Burger Kings. This has been a clear flaw in the charter law in California, and likely in other states, and I have criticized it for years. Better might be the procedure in Sweden, which has a world-class similar system in its "free schools" (friskolor): would-be founders apply directly to the national education ministry (our state boards would be roughly equivalent), who are likely to be both more professional and less biased than the poor souls entombed in dying local districts' charter offices. Even if a school idea is great and obviously competitive (Jay Mathews kindly named ours one of the best new school ideas he came across in an informal national contest designed for our country to get serious about solving its educational problems), getting an innovative charter school authorized these days is virtually impossible unless it fits with the increasingly tightly defined criteria of districts that, bent on being seen as "high quality authorizers", are draining all of the hoped-for innovation from our education system. As happens all too often, it's the data that doesn't appear in the charter office directors' evaluations that can make all the difference to families stuck in poor communities without choice: schools that never get opened, including possibly great ones, are not items that figure into their performance reviews; only ones that do open, for better or worse, are so considered, and so the officials grow cautious.

But I still want "my school" (the former slogan of the California Charter Schools Association, which once used to back schools, rather than some "movement" as considered apart from its member schools--there's that institutional self-interest raising its ugly head again) for my son and all similarly minded families, so I think opening an independent school that will operate under the optimal charter, including its model budgetary and admissions conditions, that we have already committed to is the best idea, so that, if it works, we can still show our doubters, and especially the people in the communities we were denied the opportunity to serve, what they could have had, and perhaps still can have, if we ever open a second school.

And teachers, I read today that, using a revivification of the Stull Act, LAUSD wants to impose (rather than negotiate) its performance review system on you. Good luck to you; but based on my experience, and remembering how brief is the average tenure of an urban superintendent, it's hard to believe that this GOD's message is one you should obey.

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