El Camino Real Charter teachers voice strong support for school, meet with union reps; LAUSD makes correspondence public

Sue Freitag drama teacher El Camino

Performing arts teacher Sue Freitag of El Camino Real Charter High School.

A $1,139 dinner at a steakhouse. A $95 bottle of fine Syrah wine. A $73 bill for flowers.

Those charges and others made by staff of a successful charter school were cited this week at an LA Unified School Board meeting and led the district to take the first steps to revoking the school’s charter.

El Camino Real Charter High School, which educates 3,600 students in the west San Fernando Valley, was given a Notice of Violations Tuesday that they must answer by Sept. 23, or the district could hold a public hearing to decide whether to revoke the school’s charter and return it to traditional district school status.

On Friday morning, all of the correspondence between the district and the school that was provided to the school board members was made public as per a request by board member Monica Ratliff.

While some of the school board members seemed outraged about the charges against the charter school in more than an hour of debate Tuesday, many teachers who spoke in support of the school said they felt that the district was being too harsh on the school. Some of them supported the expenses on lavish dinners, even though the district rules wouldn’t allow such practices for their own traditional schools.

“There are some things that need to be negotiated, and that may mean taking you out to dinner,” said teacher Sue Freitag. “I think the district is being unreasonable. Once again, it’s a huge bureaucracy trying to tell us all what to do. Charters are supposed to be independent.”

Marshall Mayotte, El Camino Real chief business officer

Marshall Mayotte, El Camino Real chief business officer

Freitag taught at the school for 14 years when it was a district school and after it became an independent charter school. She is also a member of the teachers union, UTLA, and notes that she is making 7 percent more than she did as a traditional school teacher. She said she has been part of the school family for 32 years, going back to being a student there.

“This school has had a pristine reputation in academics and the arts and it hurts me personally to see our reputation under scrutiny,” Freitag testified to the school board on Tuesday. “I question the charter school division as to why these issues were not brought up prior to the school year?” Freitag, who also is in charge of the theater program at the school, said, “I’m here for students, they deserve a safe school environment free of political interference.”

The teachers at El Camino Real will be meeting after school on Friday with UTLA members to discuss the issues with the school. The teachers have a separately negotiated UTLA contract that is different than the one for the overall district.

At Tuesday’s meeting, school board member Richard Vladovic said he sifted through the thousand of expenses of El Camino and asked, “Is it common to ask school funds to pay for a corkage fee? Can you use money meant for the students to pay the price of a bottle of wine? Can they purchase alcohol with school money? … If an LA principal did that, what would probably happen?”

Schools have done that, but they are told it’s against district policy, school officials said. Superintendent Michelle King shook her head and said, “There would be an investigation, and appropriate action would follow. No, we wouldn’t say it’s OK.”

Vladovic added that the school was asked months ago about the charges of “significant meals at restaurants and who attended the meetings and what they were for, and they did not respond.”

Jose Cole-Gutierrez, director of the district’s Charter Schools Division that brought the vote for the Notice of Violations to the school board, said his office noted the “seemingly exorbitant personal and improper expenses” including first-class travel and other expenses into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said the school has “the opportunity to remedy concerns noted” including charges on credit cards charged to the school that includes unauthorized travel expense. Although charter schools run independently, they must still follow some overall district rules and procedures, and their charters are renewed by the school board every five years but can be revoked at any time.

“We noted credit card activity that is still problematic,” Cole-Gutierrez said. “It does not prohibit the use of personal expenses. It discourages it, but does not prohibit it.” He said the district’s charter division asked for clarifications for the past two years.

School board President Steve Zimmer noted that the Notices to Cure from the charter division are common requests, and that the school board doesn’t plan to revoke the school’s charter immediately. Other school board members expressed serious concerns.

“This does not reflect on a great school, I have major concerns,” Vladovic concluded. “Do we treat schools that are still LAUSD property, as opposed to charter schools on independent sites, differently? No, so they are all treated the same.”

Board member Scott Schmerelson, who represents the district where El Camino is located, pointed out that each of the teachers speaking for the school was passionate and said “the charter school is excellent and used to have a stellar reputation.” Schmerelson noted a media interview with a school representative who said there was a lot of money in the school’s treasury and the expenses weren’t of concern.

“You can’t use public money like that,” Schmerelson said. “What bothers me the most is the arrogance, the arrogance, on the news, as if we’re the bad guys. We like the school, I don’t want to revoke the charter, I think it’s a great school. But you have to play fair and have to be fair with public money.”

Schmerelson said he received many emails from faculty members who said they were happy with the school, but unhappy with the administrators who created these problems. “The great majority of the emails I received were for the school, but against the deeds that were done,” Schmerelson said.

Janelle Ruley El Camino attorney

El Camino attorney Janelle Ruley

In the charter school’s own by-laws, it notes that purchases for staff meals must be pre-approved and “each department has a budget of $50/employee/year for meals.”

Janelle Ruley, a charter rights attorney of Young, Minney & Corr representing the school’s governing board, said the school district’s recent action “feels like a bait-and-switch sucker punch.” She said the school board’s actions are unproductive and said the school answered all the questions in a timely manner and changed some school policies.

“Like Charlie Brown kicking a football, charter schools are set up to make compliance mistakes and they’re heavily penalized when they actually do,” Ruley said. She added that the school board action “will expose the district to liability.” Ruley said the school plans to answer all the questions within the deadline, but that didn’t stop the teachers and families from being angry.

Gail Turner-Graham El Camino

Teacher Gail Turner-Graham

Teacher Gail Turner-Graham pointed out that “El Camino takes care of its teachers” with an average salary scale of $90,000 per teacher last year. She said the school increased classes, clubs and extracurricular activities by more than 15 percent and two college counselors are dedicated specifically for college planning and helping students with credit recovery. She said the school has a waiting list of 1,000 students and has “established a lean operating system” even though support staff increased by more than 40 percent.

Softball coach and teacher Lori Chandler said she had taught at the school since 1985 and when they first talked about going charter. “At the time the faculty lacked confidence and a majority was not in favor, but five years ago was very different and the faculty fully supported it,” said Chandler who also graduated from the high school. “That was the very best thing that happened to El Camino Real. Being a charter school means decisions are made at the school level.”

Chandler pointed out the school won 97 awards in the past five years in athletics. She suggested that the district wanted to take back the school because it was thriving so well and had several million dollars in their coffers for retiree benefits. “Perhaps that’s the problem, we are thriving too much,” said Chandler, who devoted 33 years to the school.

Lori Chandler El Camino

Lori Chandler, teacher and alum at El Camino Real.

District officials said they first notified the school of concerns last year, on Sept. 29, 2015 and issued a “Notice to Cure” to explain the irregularities by Oct. 30, 2015.

But the faculty and students didn’t know of the issues at the school until the first week of school this year, according to a science teacher at the school for the past 14 years, Dean Sodek. He said the faculty and parents were surprised and it was like “having a kitchen sink lobbed at us” by the district.

Sodek said the district paid a total of $1.2 million in oversight fees over the past five years to the district. He said the district charter office should offer more assistance to the school. He and other staff members said the district’s actions have shaken up the school.

“Please try to understand our frustration,” said the school’s ‎director of marketing, Melanie Horton. She said the district’s actions were “distracting and scaring our students and staff.”

Dermot Givens El Camino Real parent and attorney

Dermot Givens, an El Camino parent.

Parent Dermot Givens, an attorney whose son Damian got into the school through open enrollment, pointed out that his is one of the 8 percent of African-American families at the school. “It is not an all-white upper-class population,” Givens said, adding that his son is fluent in French, learning Mandarin Chinese and a member of the basketball team.

Marshall Mayotte, the school’s chief business officer, said the district’s report was a result of “sloppy work and false statements.” He pointed out that his name was mentioned 11 times for charges made on an employee business card and he was not at the restaurants that were named.

After the district voted to approve the latest notice to the school, Mayotte said, “We were caught off guard.” He said he didn’t have time to answer the summary of facts before the district made them public. The Los Angeles Daily News conducted an in-depth investigation of the school finances in May that also detailed expenses.

Tensions during the school board meeting grew so tense that board member Monica Garcia ordered: “OK, everybody breathe! Everybody breathe! There is a lot of tension and anxiety out there. What I hear is there is a lot people who support their school and want to see a solution and concern about some behavior came to light at some point. …  What I’m interested in hearing is a conversation of how to fix the issues.”

Scott Silverstein, a newly elected member of the El Camino school board and the parent of a recent graduate of the school, said, “We are more than happy to make the necessary changes.”

Morning Read: Numbers cruncher shows Los Angeles charter schools outperform traditional schools in latest test scores

Los Angeles charter schools are outperforming traditional schools in math and English
A math teacher at LA Unified’s Luther Burbank Middle School takes the latest CAASPP (California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance) scores and finds charter schools outperformed traditional schools in both math and English. He also lists three schools that serve diverse and poor students that stand out with exceptional scores — two magnets and a charter. By Benjamin Feinberg, Education Post

Exactly how many students really did start school at LAUSD?

Hyde Park

Darsha Philips of Channel 7 interviews parent Hugo Henderson at Hyde Park Early Education Center last Tuesday morning. (Courtesy: LAUSD)

How many students actually started school last week at LA Unified?

It’s a question that the second-largest school district in the country is a bit sensitive about, especially because enrollment means money.

The media cavalierly bandied about a wide array of numbers that may not seem significant but can equate to a difference as big as the entire populations of cities such as Santa Monica or Beverly Hills.

When Channel 7 interviewed school officials before dawn last Tuesday, the report was “more than half a million” students were heading to school.

On the same day, the Los Angeles Times reported “542,000 in the district-operated schools” and “charter enrollment has grown to more than 101,000.”

Fox-11’s headline declared: “For LAUSD: 640,000 students head back to class.”

KPCC reported there were “roughly 514,000 students who returned to classes,” and the Los Angeles Daily News reported there were “550,000 kids returning to roughly 1,000 schools across Los Angeles” and that “another 101,000 students will return to charter schools.”

All of those media outlets that collectively came out to 10 school sites last Tuesday received a blue folder including a sheet of Fingertip Facts with the district’s latest enrollment numbers. (Some media outlets received more than one of those folders, district officials noted.) The older Fingertip Facts are still online on the district website but are expected to be updated any day.

The Fingertip Facts that were handed out showed that 528,066 “regular and affiliated charter” students from elementary, middle, high and special ed schools were enrolled in the district. The number of independent charter school students was 107,142.

That makes a total of 635,207 students that LA Unified is responsible for, and if the adult education school population is included, the number increases to 705,075.

But not even that number is quite accurate.

“You can imagine that with a district this large, you can get different numbers from different departments, but we are trying to be as accurate as possible,” said Daryl Strickland of the LA Unified Communications Department. “We are giving a number that is a snapshot at that moment in time, but it’s constantly changing.”

And, in fact, the number handed out last Tuesday isn’t totally accurate because it was missing the early enrollment numbers, Strickland said.

Strickland muses that many of the media are using statistics they have used in the past for consistency in their own sites. But this is a school district that at one time topped 750,000 students and is now facing persistent declining enrollment which costs millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, the 2016-2017 Fingertip Facts now show there are 1,283 schools and centers in the district, including 221 charter schools. There are 94 languages other than English spoken with a breakdown of 74 percent Latino, 9.8 percent white, 8.4 percent African American and 6 percent Asian.

The facts also show that the number of district employees went up from 59,823 last year to 60,191 at the opening of this school year.

That is, for now.

These 20 LAUSD schools are among the state’s lowest performers

CriticalDesignGamingSchoolA total of 20 schools—14 district schools and six charter schools—that fall under the LA Unified umbrella are among the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools in the state of California.

The schools are eligible for School Improvement Grants (SIG) money that can result in $2 million a year for five years if the school administrators decide to implement one of seven school models that will help improve their scores.

The issue was brought up at the first LA Unified School Board meeting of the school year on Tuesday. Board members also discussed whether they need to intervene with the five traditional schools that are run by Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (and are not charter schools), as well as the six other charter schools that they oversee in the district.

The surprise is that a few of them named on the list are notable and previously celebrated schools as far as past achievements, yet some of them have been identified as low performing since 2010.

The traditional district schools are:

  • 107th Street Elementary
  • Annalee Avenue Elementary
  • Augustus F. Hawkins High School-A Critical Design and Gaming School
  • Barton Hill Elementary
  • Cabrillo Avenue Elementary
  • Daniel Webster Middle
  • Dr. Owen Lloyd Knox Elementary
  • Edwin Markham Middle
  • Florence Griffth Joyner Elementary
  • George Washington Carver Middle
  • George Washington Preparatory High
  • Samuel Gompers Middle School
  • Tom Bradley Global Awareness Magnet Elementary
  • Westchester Enriched Sciences High School Magnets- Health/Sports/Medicin

The charter schools are:

  • Alain Leroy Locke College Preparatory Academy High (Green Dot)
  • Animo Phillis Wheatley Charter Middle (Green Dot)
  • Los Angeles Leadership Academy High
  • Lou Dantzler Preparatory Charter Middle (ICEF)
  • North Valley Military Institute College Preparatory
  • Wallis Annenberg High (Accelerated School Foundation)

The list from the California Department of Education only slightly differs with the low-achieving list from the CORE district ratings which also included Century Park and Hillcrest Drive elementary schools and David Starr Jordan and Dr. Maya Angelou Community high schools.

The list of 291 schools throughout the state of low-performing schools identify 20 in LA Unified, one in Los Angeles County Office of Education (Soledad Enrichment Charter High) and one in Long Beach (Jordan High). In Los Angeles County, there are 12 other school districts with schools named in the lowest 5 percent of state schools.

The state’s lowest 5 percent of schools was based on 2015 math and English assessment scores, graduation rates based on four years of data, the English learner indicator of the past two years, suspension rates over two years and college and career indicators.

Among the charter schools, the 3-year-old North Valley Military Institute is the only one of its kind in LA Unified and is championed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

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Morning Read: LAUSD officials point to Vena Avenue Elementary as success story in state testing results

Why this small Pacoima school saw big gains in state testing

The percentage of third- through fifth-graders who met or exceeded the Smarter Balanced assessments in English language arts at Vena Avenue Elementary & Gifted Magnet increased from 44 percent in 2014-15 to 66 percent in 2015-16. Meanwhile, 52 percent of third- to fifth- graders met or exceeded the standards in math last year, up from 43 percent the prior year. Los Angeles Unified School District officials are pointing to this small San Fernando Valley school — in which more than 20 percent of its population are English learners and about 80 percent are low-income — as a success story with its own lessons to share. By Brenda Gazzar, LA Daily News

Zimmer expresses frustration over credit recovery, graduating with D’s and academic counselor shortage

ZimmerTiredWhile the latest academic reports from the LA Unified school district were positive overall, school board President Steve Zimmer expressed frustration at some of the data presented at Tuesday’s board meeting and said he foresees potential problems ahead.

Zimmer asked for a breakdown of how many students are graduating with D grades and in what subjects.

“How many graduate with several D’s? How many of those D’s are in algebra?” asked Zimmer, who said he tries to remain data-driven in his decisions. “I see this and it causes me a lot of stress.”

He also wanted to know if the district is notifying local colleges and universities to let them know that the second-largest school district in the country is hiring academic counselors again.

“We know about the teacher shortage coming up, but I’m worried that we need to be working on hiring academic counselors,” Zimmer said. He pointed out that the district administrators should let the local colleges know of the district’s needs. “If they know we’re hiring, they will graduate them. This is a pretty market-driven system.”

Those academic counselors will also help students with their credit recovery program and push them toward graduation, he noted.

Although some of the academic scores came close to the district’s targeted goals, some were sorely lacking.

Cynthia Lim, the executive director of Office of Data and Accountability

Cynthia Lim, the executive director of the Office of Data and Accountability.

For example, every high school student is supposed to have an Individualized Graduation Plan (IGP), but only 59 percent do, said Cynthia Lim, the executive director of the Office of Data and Accountability for LA Unified.

“We had a few glitches in the system,” Lim explained.

At one point Tuesday, Zimmer turned to the new student school board member, Karen Calderon, and asked if she had an Individualized Graduation Plan. No, she didn’t, but she said she has a good relationship with the counselors at her high school.

Also, about 38 percent of the district students taking the college-level Advanced Placement Exams received a 3 or higher, making them eligible to get college credit, Lim said. The target that the district is striving for next year is 40 percent.

“We have some improvement needed there too,” Lim reported.

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King, Torlakson tout improvements on standardized test scores

King

State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson, left, LA Unified Superintendent Michelle King and LA Unified school board President Steve Zimmer at Eagle Rock Elementary School to discuss new standardized test results.

LA Unified Superintendent Michelle King, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, LA Unified school board President Steve Zimmer and other leaders called a press conference this morning at Eagle Rock Elementary School to tout the results of the newly released standardized test scores.

Scores in the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) went up both statewide and districtwide in the second year the Common Core-aligned tests were given. King was quick to point out that LA Unified’s gains were among the best of any large district.

“These represent some of the highest gains that were achieved among urban districts in California,” King said.

LA Unified’s score jumped six percentage points in the English test — from 33 percent to 39 percent — and three or four percentage points in the math test, from 25 to 28 or 29 percent. (There is a discrepancy between what the CDE website shows and LA Unified said the score was. Officially, LA Unified said the total was 28.696 percent.)

King also pointed out that nearly every important subgroup like English learners and students from economically challenged households also saw gains.

Statewide, students jumped five percentage points to 49 percent meeting or exceeding the English standard, while jumping four percentage points to 37 percent who met or exceeded the math standard.

Zimmer, who is running for reelection, said he does not put all his faith in test scores but was happy to brag about the results. The board president has received financial support and the endorsement of the LA teachers union, UTLA, which has a policy of downplaying the importance of standardized tests, in particular when they are used to judge the performance of teachers.

“Those of you who know me know that I don’t believe that test scores tell us everything. I don’t even believe that test scores always tell us the most important things. But they are an indicator of progress, and the scores that we are releasing today show that in almost every significant area this district continues to make progress,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer, King and Torlakson stayed away from some of less positive news from the test results, including that the achievement gaps between some minority groups and white students, and between students from economically challenged backgrounds and their wealthier peers, remained close to the same as last year. While minorities and subgroups showed improvements, so did white students and those not from wealthier backgrounds, so the gaps remained at close to the same levels.

“Yes, absolutely, we have a lot of work to do. Yes, unfortunately, we did not see the achievement gap narrow. It’s real and we have to redouble our efforts,” Torlakson said when asked by a reporter about the achievement gap. He then added that he is working to create a team on equity in education to focus on the achievement gap.

Zimmer said the new results should “supercharge our urgency around the achievement gap and take very, very clear steps in terms of our investments.”

When it came to the improvements that have occurred, Torlakson said not all the reasons are known, but he did credit the increased education budgets over the last few years from Gov. Jerry Brown as a key factor.

“Why did this occur? We don’t have all the answers to that question. There is research and further analysis of data to be done, but I believe that it is because we have set new, higher, rigorous standards, relevant standards to our students, and it is because we have had better budgets, so we have had the resources to make a difference,” Torlakson said.

LAUSD, California see jumps in state test scores, but achievement gaps remain

LA Unified students increased their scores this year in the statewide standardized tests, but significant achievement gaps remain for African-American and Latino students, as well as for English learners and students from economically challenged backgrounds.

The improvements came along with increases statewide in the second year of the new assessments, which are aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

Roughly 3.2 million students statewide in the 3rd through 8th grade and the 11th grade took the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) standardized tests this year. The results place students in one of four categories: standard exceeded, standard met, standard nearly met and standard not met. The tests are also referred to as the Smarter Balanced tests after the consortium that developed them.

LA Unified’s overall scores increased in both English language arts (ELA) and math over last year. On the ELA test, 39 percent of district students met or exceeded the ELA standard, compared to 33 percent last year, and 28 percent met or exceeded the math standard, compared to 25 percent last year.

The scores do not include the results of the district’s 221 independent charter schools that were tested last school year. The California Charter School Association said it was analyzing the test scores of the district’s charters and may have results later today.

Statewide, 49 percent of students met or exceeded the ELA standard, which is up from 44 percent last year. In mathematics, 37 percent of students met or exceeded standards, which is up from 33 percent last year.

“The higher test scores show that the dedication, hard work, and patience of California’s teachers, parents, school employees, and administrators are paying off. Together we are making progress towards upgrading our education system to prepare all students for careers and college in the 21st century,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement. “Of course there’s more work to do, but our system has momentum. I am confident that business, political and community leaders will join parents and educators to help continue supporting increased standards and resources for schools.”

The results were made available to the media yesterday in advance of the public being given access to the results on the CAASPP website at 9 a.m. today. LA Unified Superintendent Michelle King is scheduled to hold a press conference along with Torlakson this morning at 9 a.m. to discuss the results.

Torlakson said in a press release that a number of factors may have helped scores rise this year, including an extra year of teaching the California state standards in English and math, more familiarity with taking an online test, continued improvements in technology, and the use of interim tests.

But the achievement gap statewide and at LA Unified by race continues.

Thirty-seven percent of Latinos and 31 percent of African-American students in the state met or exceeded the ELA standards, compared with 64 percent of white students. At the distinct level, 28 percent of African-American students met or exceeded the ELA standard and 17 percent met or exceeded the math standards. Thirty-three percent of Latino students met or exceeded the English standards and 23 percent met or exceeded the math standards. This compared to 67 percent of white students meeting or exceeded the ELA standard and 57 percent meeting or exceeded the math standard.

“The achievement gap is pernicious and persistent and we all need to work together to find solutions that help all groups rise, while narrowing the gap,” said Torlakson in a statement.

LA Unified fared better in the performance of English learners on the ELA test than compared to the state, but did not best the state in two other key subgroups, which are students with disabilities and students from economically challenged families. These three subgroups are tracked by the state and districts are required by state law — the Local Control Funding Formula — to provide extra funding for them.

Nineteen percent of the district’s English learners met or exceeded the ELA standard, compared to only 13 percent for the state, but six percent met or exceeded the math standard, compared to 12 percent for the state. Eight percent of students with disabilities at LA Unified met or exceeded the ELA standard, compared to 14 percent for the state, and six percent met or exceeded the math standard, compared to 11 percent for the state. Thirty-three percent of LA Unified’s economically challenged students met or exceeded the ELA standard, compared to 35 percent for the state, and 24 percent met or exceeded the math standard, while 24 percent from the state also met or exceeded the standard.

Commentary: Vergara’s dissenting justices write for history

Judge Rolf Treu affirm vergara decisionIn the long struggle to make the United States more just and perfect, court majorities have made some horrific mistakes. When that happens, the burden falls on dissents to provide hope for the future arc of the moral universe.

Such dissents often come from the most distinguished jurists. Benjamin Curtis, for instance, was the first formally trained lawyer on the United States Supreme Court. In 1857, he dissented from the Dred Scott case that eviscerated the civil rights of African Americans, arguing that: “free persons, descended from Africans held in slavery, were citizens of the United States.” John Harlan dissented in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) with the following famous lines:

“Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. … The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

Justices Curtis and Harlan were vindicated by history, as were Justice Louis Brandeis in Olmstead v. United States (1928) regarding the right to privacy, and Justice Harlan Stone in Minersville School District (1940) regarding freedom of religion.

Today, justices unable to persuade their peers write for history, as in the 2011 dissents of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg (the Dukes v. Walmart case regarding workplace rights of women) and Sonia Sotomayor (the United States v. Jicarilla Apache Nation case regarding the rights of the Apache Nation).

These examples come to mind in light of recent news from California, the nation’s largest state, and education reform, which the Urban League’s Esther Bush and many others have called the greatest civil rights issue of our time.

As background, in 2012 public school student Beatriz Vergara and 8 other schoolchildren sued California for violating their constitutional rights by providing them with systematically inferior education. In 2014, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu agreed with the students, ruling that the California educational system “shocks the conscience” in its mistreatment of students of color. Judge Treu’s decision met with immediate and widespread approval from almost every major newspaper editorial board of the left, right, and center, as well as longtime progressive education leaders such as California’s former Congressman George Miller.

Unfortunately, three California appellate judges, led by Justice Roger Boren, made a clearly flawed decision to overturn Vergara.

As I wrote at the time, I was confident that the California Supreme Court would overturn Justice Boren’s clearly flawed ruling, in part because of my confidence in two of the individual justices of that court: Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar. Both Liu and Cuéllar have sterling reputations and have been discussed as future justices of the United States Supreme Court.

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Morning Read: LAUSD will have to aim higher after reaching goals on statewide exams

More L.A. Unified students reach goals on statewide exams, district says

More students in the Los Angeles Unified School District met statewide goals on standardized tests in 2016 than they did last year, district officials said at a meeting Tuesday. Scores on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress increased in both English and math, they reported. In English, 39 percent of students reached statewide goals, compared with 33 percent in 2015. In math, the district said, 29 percent of students reached those goals, compared to 25 percent last year. By Howard Blume, Joy Resmovits and Sonali Kohli, Los Angeles Times

Vergara-inspired lawsuit turns to federal courts

Press conference after Vergara decision LAUSD

David Welch, StudentsMatter founder, speaking at a press conference after a Vergara decision.

The attorneys involved in Vergara v. California, a landmark case that challenged teacher tenure laws, announced Tuesday they have filed a federal lawsuit in Connecticut challenging that state’s laws that they say restrict school choice options.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of the California Supreme Court’s decision Monday to decline to review an appellate court ruling that overturned Vergara v. California, effectively putting an end to that case’s four-year journey through the courts. The battle now moves to the California Legislature.

In the new case, Martinez v. Malloy, the plaintiff attorneys argue that the state laws violate equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit names 11 students and parents as plaintiffs. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and other state leaders are named as defendants.

“These inner-city children are compelled to attend public schools that the State knows have been failing its students for decades—consistently failing to provide even a minimally adequate education,” attorneys write in the lawsuit. “Yet, at the same time, Connecticut has taken steps that prevent these poor and minority children from having viable public-school alternatives— knowingly depriving low-income and minority schoolchildren of the vital educational opportunities available to their more affluent and predominantly white peers.”

The attorneys cite three categories of laws that are being challenged: the state has put a moratorium on new magnet schools, “arcane and dysfunctional” laws that govern public charter schools and the state’s inter-district open choice enrollment program that penalizes school districts that accept students from inner-city school districts.

“Federal courts have a proud tradition of recognizing and protecting our most cherished fundamental rights — particularly when our children’s futures are at stake,” said Joshua Lipshutz, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “It is time for the federal courts to step in and stop states, like Connecticut, from forcing inner-city children to attend failing schools.  Under the U.S. Constitution, every child deserves a chance to succeed in life.”

“As urban parents, we have to work ten times as hard, be ten times as engaged, and be ten times as savvy about the system to give our children even a slim chance of getting into a quality school,” said Jessica Martinez in a statement, the mother of one of the plaintiffs. “Connecticut’s laws hurt and impede, rather than help us.”

StudentsMatter is sponsoring the lawsuit. They say tens of thousands of poor and minority students in Connecticut are harmed by the laws.

“Every child deserves access to a quality education and the opportunities it provides, but the state is effectively limiting that access for some children — a direct violation of their Constitutional rights,” said StudentsMatter founder David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. “This case is about parents standing up and demanding answers for a broken and harmful system.”

With Vergara’s demise, heat’s on California Legislature to take up teacher tenure

ShirleyBonillaSplit

Assemblymembers Shirley Weber, left, and Susan Bonilla.

In the wake of a crushing defeat for a landmark challenge to California’s teacher tenure laws, the battle for change has shifted from the courts to the state Legislature.

While most parties agree that the inequities brought to light during the Vergara v. California trial must be righted, there’s a difference of opinion from those inside and outside the Legislature about whether that’s possible in the current political landscape in Sacramento, where teachers unions are among the most powerful lobbying groups.

Marshall Tuck, a former Los Angeles charter schools executive who ran unsuccessfully for state superintendent in 2014, credited Vergara and its nine student plaintiffs for the change he’s seen in the halls of the capitol.

“There’s real momentum that’s been built around these kids and the support they got,” Tuck said. “I believe that the momentum will hopefully continue and that we’ll get these changes.”

Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, takes an opposite view.

“There’s no momentum. It’s the reverse,” she said. She pointed out that the California Teachers Association has racked up three wins since spring, with the appellate court’s unanimous ruling to overturn Vergara, the Supreme Court’s decision this week to decline to review the case and the thwarting of her own bill that would have made changes to teacher tenure and dismissal procedures.

“That’s the reality. It gets harder with every defeat,” she said.

Bonilla agrees it’s the Legislature’s job to make these changes.

“That’s why I carried my bill. The Legislature needs to take action. They shouldn’t abdicate their responsibility to the children of California.”

Even though Bonilla’s AB 934 was defeated after initial backers withdrew their support and lobbied against the final watered-down version, Tuck said the bill showed that the Legislature has made progress.

“Really for the first time, you saw a Democrat introduce meaningful legislation that addressed a lot of the areas that Vergara sought to address,” he said. “That, to me, really shows progress.

“Four years ago, there was zero dialogue about improving these laws,” he said.

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Astronaut Ellen Ochoa pays return visit to namesake school

Ochoa-and-Huerta-1

Dr. Ellen Ochoa is greeted by Local District East Superintendent Jose Huerta at her namesake school in Cudahy. (Courtesy: LAUSD)

By Samuel Gilstrap

Visiting her namesake school never gets old for Dr. Ellen Ochoa.

The former shuttle astronaut, who now heads NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, recently paid a visit to the Ellen Ochoa Learning Center in Cudahy, the fourth time she has returned since the 800-student school was named in her honor a decade ago.

“It’s fun to come back, and see what’s going on,” said Ochoa, the first Latina to be chosen as an astronaut. “There is a great staff, and I’m always impressed with their dedication. More importantly, it’s great talking to students.”

Ochoa spoke to students during two assemblies, sharing a video about her work as a mission specialist and flight engineer during four trips aboard the Discovery and Atlantic shuttles. She said her favorite part of being an astronaut were the spectacular views of Earth from the International Space Station. She also talked about her present-day duties overseeing the operation of the Space Station, a football-field size satellite that weighs nearly 1 million pounds and orbits 250 miles above the Earth.

Click here for the full story from LAUSD Daily.

Commentary: UTLA head should seek to avert state crisis, not create one

Alex Caputo-Pearl strike talks UTLABy Caroline Bermudez

Nearly two years ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez posed a question in an op-ed worth revisiting.

Is the L.A. teachers union tone deaf?

Based on a recent speech given by Alex Caputo-Pearl, the head of United Teachers Los Angeles, the answer is a definitive yes.

The juvenile world of heroes and villains Caputo-Pearl described, one where evil corporations and billionaires look to profit from public education while scrappy, earnest underdogs try to stop them, bears no semblance to reality.

Teachers unions in California comprise one of the most powerful political forces in the state.

Rather than admit this, Caputo-Pearl issued a battle cry worthy of a Bugs Bunny cartoon in his speech given at the UTLA Leadership Conference:

“With our contract expiring in June 2017, the likely attack on our health benefits in the fall of 2017, the race for Governor heating up in 2018, and the unequivocal need for state legislation that addresses inadequate funding and increased regulation of charters, with all of these things, the next year-and-a-half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018. There simply may be no other way to protect our health benefits and to shock the system into investing in the civic institution of public education.”

What is glaring in Caputo-Pearl’s speech is that aside from mentioning his own two children, the word “children” was said only once. This speaks volumes as to the rationale behind his leadership, a role serving the interests of adults before those of students. Threatening to strike should be an absolute last resort, not the first order of action.

It calls to mind a classic paradox.

Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

The unstoppable force is the rising cost of health care and pensions in this nation. As a result of these sharply increasing costs, LAUSD faces a staggering amount of debt, to the tune of more than $11 billion, that threatens to cripple the entire system because the district is on the hook, per demands made by UTLA, to provide lifetime health benefits and retirement pensions to its employees.

According to a report written by an independent financial review panel that was commissioned by LAUSD, the district owes more than $20,000 per student for unfunded liabilities (see page 44) although per pupil expenditure in California is less than $10,000 per student. Placed in further context, the liability for retirement benefits LAUSD is obligated to pay for is four times that of other large urban school districts. Twenty-seven percent of state funding LAUSD receives goes to paying pension and health care costs before factoring in teacher salaries, school supplies and textbooks.

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Morning Read: LAUSD tried to discredit student sex assault victim, attorneys say

Attorneys say LAUSD tried to discredit girl after sexual assault claim
Attorneys for a former Los Angeles Unified School District student on Monday expressed outrage over the LAUSD’s alleged attempts to discredit the girl, who said she was sexually assaulted in a bathroom at her elementary school. In April 2012, the then-12-year-old girl said the assault occurred at 95th Street Elementary School in South L.A. No one was ever arrested in the alleged attack, and the girl’s family filed a lawsuit against the school district. By Chelsea Edwards, ABC7

JUST IN: Vergara ends — California Supreme Court refuses to take up teacher tenure case

Just In - Breaking Vergara Trial Ruling LAUSD

*UPDATED

In a split decision, the California Supreme Court on Monday declined to review an appellate court ruling that overturned Vergara v. California, a landmark case that challenged teacher tenure and declared some school employment laws unconstitutional.

The court was split four to three, with two of the dissenting judges issuing lengthy and forceful statements that laid out why action is needed on the state’s tenure laws.

Ted Boutrous, an attorney for StudentsMatter, the nonprofit that supported the nine California public school student-plaintiffs and asked the state Supreme Court to review the appellate court ruling, said in a call with reporters that he has never seen dissenting statements like the ones given Monday in previous Supreme Court denials, “Until today.”

“These are two scholars, legal scholars, brilliant scholars, who have explained why these issues are so important, why the statutes are so bad, why the court should have taken this case,” he said.

Boutrous said the justices’ opinions will be a “launch pad” to a possible federal case.

“We have been exploring possible federal challenges based on very similar theories and other theories” as related to the Vergara lawsuit, he said.

Justices Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, who wrote the dissents, were nominated by Gov. Jerry Brown and reportedly on President Barack Obama’s short-list as possible U.S. Supreme Court nominees this year after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

“As the state’s highest court, we owe the plaintiffs in this case, as well as schoolchildren throughout California, our transparent and reasoned judgment on whether the challenged statutes deprive a significant subset of students of their fundamental right to education and violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws. I respectfully dissent from the denial of review,” wrote Justice Liu.

“The nine schoolchildren who brought this action, along with the millions of children whose educational opportunities are affected every day by the challenged statutes, deserve to have their claims heard by this state’s highest court.”

Justice Cuellar wrote in his dissenting statement: “Beatriz Vergara and her fellow plaintiffs raise profound questions with implications for millions of students across California. They deserve an answer from this court. Difficult as it is to embrace the logic of the appellate court on this issue, it is even more difficult to allow that court’s decision to stay on the books without review in a case of enormous statewide importance.

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Key excerpts from judges’ dissents in the Vergara ruling

Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara

Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara, student-plantiffs in Vergara v. California.

The California Supreme Court today declined to review an appellate court ruling that overturned the landmark Vergara v. California teacher tenure case.

Here are key excerpts from the dissenting opinions of State Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and State Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu:


The nine schoolchildren who brought this action, along with the millions of children whose educational opportunities are affected every day by the challenged statutes, deserve to have their claims heard by this state’s highest court.


The Court of Appeal’s treatment of Group 1 is more problematic. In overturning the trial court’s judgment with respect to this group, the Court of Appeal said the group is not “an identifiable class of persons sufficient to maintain an equal protection challenge” because “to claim an equal protection violation [citations], group members must have some pertinent common characteristic other than the fact that they are assertedly harmed by a statute.” On this point, the Court of Appeal likely erred.


The two cases involve different yet complementary claims concerning the importance of resources and reform to improving the education system. Both cases ultimately present the same basic issue: whether the education clauses of our state Constitution guarantee a minimum level of quality below which our public schools cannot be permitted to fall. This issue is surely one of the most consequential to the future of California.


Despite the gravity of the trial court’s findings, despite the apparent error in the Court of Appeal’s equal protection analysis, and despite the undeniable statewide importance of the issues presented, the court decides that the serious claims raised by Beatriz Vergara and her eight student peers do not warrant our review. I disagree. As the state’s highest court, we owe the plaintiffs in this case, as well as schoolchildren throughout California, our transparent and reasoned judgment on whether the challenged statutes deprive a significant subset of students of their fundamental right to education and violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws. I respectfully dissent from the denial of review.


Nothing in California’s Constitution or any other law supports the Court of Appeal’s reasoning.


When a fundamental right has been appreciably burdened, we apply strict scrutiny. The appellate court did not. Instead it erected a novel barrier — not only for Beatriz Vergara and her fellow student plaintiffs, but for all California litigants seeking to raise equal protection claims based on a fundamental right.


Beatriz Vergara and her fellow plaintiffs raise profound questions with implications for millions of students across California.They deserve an answer from this court. Difficult as it is to embrace the logic of the appellate court on this issue, it is even more difficult to allow that court’s decision to stay on the books without review in a case of enormous statewide importance.


These findings instead failed to justify a remedy, according to the Court of Appeal, because there was no identifiable group explicitly targeted or uniquely burdened by the statutes. This conclusion is, at best, in stark tension with settled law.


The harmful consequences to a child’s education caused by grossly ineffective teachers — the evidence for which the trial court found compelling — are no less grave than those resulting from a shortened period of instruction or financial shortfalls. In considering this case, we must respect the role of the representative branches of government and the public itself in shaping education policy. But our responsibility to honor the court’s proper constitutional role makes it as important for us to review a case that merits our attention as it is for us to avoid a dispute beyond the court’s purview. This case is the former. It squarely presents significant questions of state constitutional jurisprudence that our court, rather than the Legislature or the executive branch, is best suited to address.


There is no right without an adequate remedy. And no such remedy exists without review by a court of last resort when the decision of the appellate court, the importance of the case, and the question presented so clearly merit review. Denying review in this case leaves in place a decision that is in considerable tension with existing law and accepts with little explanation the notion of material interference with the fundamental right to an education – interference that the trial court here found was caused by the challenged statutes


There is a difference between the usual blemishes in governance left as institutions implement statutes or engage in routine trade-offs and those staggering failures that threaten to turn the right to education for California schoolchildren into an empty promise. Knowing the difference is as fundamental as education itself. Which is why I would grant review.


Read the full dissenting statements here.

LAUSD board takes up health benefits, teacher hiring, school calendar, charter considerations

SchoolBoardHiring more teachers, moving the school year to start after Labor Day, training workers to fix air conditioners and offering health benefits for teachers assistants and playground aides are some of the items on the list for the Tuesday afternoon’s LA Unified School Board meeting kicking off the new year.

The school board will also be considering fixing playing fields at some schools, making other schools more accessible to disabled students and taking the first steps to opening an all-boys school.

The school board begins its day in closed session at 9 a.m. on Aug. 23 where they will discuss employee evaluations, labor negotiations and existing litigation, including the $1-billion class-action lawsuit brought by fired teacher Rafe Esquith and others who were in teacher jails.

The meeting is scheduled to start at 2 p.m. at the Beaudry Avenue Headquarters, and the agenda notes that the school board will discuss important policy issues such as:

More hiring. The school board is being asked to hire 1,632 more classified, certificated and unclassified employees. There are also 1,077 retirements, 1,153 resignations and 2,388 separation/non-resignations. The district is asking for approval of 537 new hires that are mostly teachers and counselors, 51 of them with provisional intern permits.

School calendar. Three school board members are proposing a resolution to change the school year start to after Labor Day to save money.

• Health benefits. The Service Employees’ International Union, Local 99 hammered out an agreement that will allow certain teacher assistants and playground aides to get health insurance who couldn’t previously.

Boys school. The board is being asked to approve nearly $700,000 to upgrade some classrooms at Washington Preparatory High School for the upcoming Boys Academic Leadership Academy (BALA).

• College savings. Another resolution asks the district to unite with plans by Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu to look at how to implement college savings accounts for LA Unified students to help with college tuition.

• Family survey. Board member Monica Ratliff introduces a resolution asking the district to survey families to determine causes of declining enrollment.

Prop 56. Board member George McKenna is asking for the district to support the tax on tobacco for research and prevention.

Prop 58. School board President Steve Zimmer and Ref Rodriguez ask for support of Proposition 58: LEARN (Language Education, Acquisition and Readiness Now) to prepare students for a multilingual economy.

Measure M. Zimmer and board member Monica Garcia ask for support of Measure M, a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot to fund transportation services.

Workforce housing. Board members Ratliff and Zimmer are asking the district to explore options for workforce housing in Sun Valley.

• UCLA Mental Health Fellows. Acknowledging that the cost for a full-time psychiatrist is cost prohibitive, the district is asking to spend $78,000 on UCLA Fellows in a continued partnership with the LA County Mental Health Department to create the nation’s first blended-funding, full-scope, school district-based Medi-Cal child and family psychiatric clinic.

Stacked parking. Staff is asking for a three-year contract with Modern Parking Inc. for $1.1 million to continue to stack their cars across the street from the Beaudry headquarters. The stacked parking allows for 270 more spaces per day for a total of about 1,620.

Some of the new business involves construction that is funded through bond money. Among the projects being considered are:

• 13 schools will have accessibility enhancement projects totaling nearly $24 million.

• Four critical athletic programs will cost $9.8 million for turf replacing and seismic retrofitting.

• 12 architectural and engineering contracts for about $36.5 million.

• One proposal is asking for $60,120 for the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Training Center, which has helped staff keep the aging HVAC systems going.

The charter schools division of the district has on the agenda for the school board, which controls the approval of independent charters in the district:

• A hearing of violations by El Camino Real Charter High School for “procedures that were sorely inadequate and numerous, seemingly exorbitant, personal and/or improper expenses were incurred without scrutiny and proper documentation.” The school plans to address the concerns, and there will be a public hearing.

•  Material revisions for the Citizens of the World 3, KIPP Comienza Community Prep, KIPP Philosophers Academy, KIPP Vida Preparatory Academy, N.E.W. Academy of Science and Arts, Port of Los Angeles High School and City High School.

• There are also public hearings for new charter schools and renewals from Citizens of the World Westside (1,020 students for K-8 grades); Equitas Academy 2 (400 for 5-8 grades); Fenton Avenue (741 for TK and 3-5 grades); Fenton Primary Center (804 for TK-2); Monsenor Oscar Romero Charter Middle (375 for 6-8); Synergy (940 for TK-6), and Synergy Charter (480 for K-5).

For more details, see the Meeting Materials and the Board Agenda.

The meeting begins Tuesday at 2 p.m. at 333 S. Beaudry Ave. in the board room and will be broadcast live (check LA School Report for the link).

Commentary: Why teachers are burning out — reimagining the American education system

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 9.00.17 AMBy Jane Mayer and Jesse Soza, Ed.D.

This is the second in a five-article series about teacher sustainability in Los Angeles and California public schools and the available solutions to reversing teacher turnover. Read the first article here.


Teacher turnover, otherwise known as burnout, is a multi-faceted and complex problem currently plaguing the public education system in our country. And it’s one that hits relatively close to home. Education is a unifying element of American society—we’re hard-pressed to find many institutions that have influenced the lives of every citizen.

Because there are approximately 3.5 million to 5.5 million teachers in our country, which amounts to 1-2 percent of the population (reports vary based on categorization of administration, grade levels, etc.) almost everyone knows and loves a teacher. And 40-50 percent of them are leaving our schools within five years of entering, unable to sustain careers within the current education system.

On the whole, teachers are passionate, compassionate, innovative and intelligent members of our society. Ask any teacher why he or she got into teaching, and almost everyone will give you some variation of wanting to mentor young people, pass along a passion for a subject, serve the way a childhood teacher had served him, or—in no uncertain terms, “change the world.” No one gets into teaching because of the prestige, the easy work or the money. Teachers go into teaching because they are called—and because they have a vision of themselves as change agents in the world.

So, the question becomes (and rightly so, as pointed out by several comments on the first article), why are these passionate, committed and bright people, who set out to serve our communities, leaving at such astounding rates?

The knee-jerk response often revolves around poor salaries, though the answer isn’t as simple as giving people a raise (but with a national starting salary of $35,672, raises wouldn’t hurt). There are places in our country where the increased cost of living dramatically outpaces teacher salaries (like Los Angeles and San Francisco) and actually dissuades people from becoming teachers at all.

But despite pay, many of our nation’s teachers would happily continue working in schools if other conditions that lead to burnout were changed. And the other good news is that there are concrete and effective ways to address the conditions that are driving our teachers out of classrooms across this state and our country.

So, back to the question at hand—if it’s not simply money, why are they leaving?

Richard Ingersoll, one of the foremost experts on teacher attrition and a former teacher himself, reflected on this question personally in an interview with The Atlantic: “‘One of the big reasons I quit was sort of intangible,’ Ingersoll says. ‘But it’s very real: It’s just a lack of respect. Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work.'”

Could it really be so simple that all teachers need to stay in the classroom is to feel heard, respected and empowered?

Yes.

When there is a workforce that is intelligent, well-educated, compassionate and committed to service, the best way we can honor them is to trust them to do their jobs. Trust them to teach what needs to be taught, trust their experiences in the classroom are valuable sources of information, trust that they are experts at teaching.

Unfortunately, the educational system we have today is not set up to honor teachers as experts—and it actually prevents them from speaking their voices, experiencing personal power and having agency to affect change. Complicated federally mandated testing, district-mandated behavior systems and ineffective school-wide policies affect every teacher in every classroom. As I have heard again and again from teachers around our city and state, our current education system actually keeps them from the being best versions of themselves as educators.

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