In Partnership with The 74

6 top education news stories in Los Angeles in the first 6 months of 2016

Laura Greanias | June 30, 2016



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(Photos courtesy of iStock)

The first half of 2016 brought high stakes and high drama to Los Angeles’ education scene, from dire budget predictions to heated charter debates to attempts at overhauling teacher tenure laws.

There were anniversaries to celebrate along the way — 25 years for both charter schools nationwide and Teach For America — and comings and goings of superintendents, plus the glimmerings of electoral races to come (for the school board’s members and president, LA City Council, mayor and even governor) that promise a starring role for education.

NEW SUPERINTENDENT

The new year started with the announcement that Michelle King had been chosen by a unanimous vote of the school board to be LA Unified’s next superintendent, the first black female ever to lead the district and the first woman since 1929. The three-month nationwide search had ended at home, with an LA Unified “lifer” who was educated in the district and has worked for it for nearly 30 years. King replaced Ramon Cortines, who stepped down at the end of 2015.

King had to immediately grapple with how the district would co-exist with the growing number of charter schools and the school board’s opposition to a plan to significantly increase their numbers. In fact, the day she was confirmed by the board was also the day of the unanimous board vote against an early draft plan to expand charters.

King called for healing, and in her first community town hall she stressed, “It’s not us versus them.” She met three times with the new head of the nonprofit formed to lead the expansion of the city’s high-quality schools, Great Public Schools Now Executive Director Myrna Castrejon, who, like King, was announced in January, is a minority woman and single mother, and stands to have significant impact on the shape and state of education in LA.

King also took on the plummeting graduation rate as well as predictions of a massive deficit within three years, holding a series of special board meetings in May and June to address the predictions and as well as recommendations outlined in a November report by an independent financial review panel.

She presented her first budget in June, which most board members praised, but noted there was much work yet to be done.

“Are we there? No, we’re not there, but we are on a path moving forward in the right direction,” King said as she presented the budget to the board.

“In general, I think that your staff and you have done a good job of trying to meet the needs in the district with the limited funds we have,” board member Monica Ratliff told her.

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BUDGET GLOOM

The future is dire,” is what King heard at the outset of the special meetings on the fiscal health of the district.

Internationally renowned education expert Pedro Noguera of UCLA, hired by the district to advise King and the board and facilitate the special meetings, warned that unless more serious measures are taken, the nation’s second-largest school district is destined to lose more students.

The challenges LA Unified is facing, Noguera said, include declining enrollment because of the growth of charters and demographic shifts, chronically under-performing schools, structural budget deficits and the need to increase public support for schools.

The details were daunting: the budget deficit was projected to reach nearly half a billion dollars in three years; a district audit showed LA Unified debt outstripped assets by $4.2 billion; unfunded pensions topped $13 billion and have more than doubled since 2005; per-pupil funding had doubled but the district still faces financial crisis; and plans for a turnaround included boosting enrollment but not cutting staff. Indeed, even though the district has lost 100,000 students in the last six years, its certified administrative staff has increased 22 percent in the last five years.

While the board in June passed a $7.6 billion balanced budget for 2016-17, it included $15 million for “housed” employees, which have increased to 181. These “teacher jails” are for staff members who are being paid to essentially do nothing while awaiting internal investigations about alleged misconduct, while the district has to hire substitutes to do their jobs.

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CHARTERS

The tensions over charters grew increasingly more heated after January’s unanimous vote by the board to oppose the charter expansion plan.

Charter operators contended the district had turned up the heat on them by making charter approvals and revisions increasingly difficult and documented that investigations into charters had increased. The board openly pondered whether the district is unfair to charters.

In May a study funded by the LA teachers union claimed that independent charter schools drain half a billion dollars a year from LA Unified, but the district disputed the report, and its own numbers show LA Unified actually makes money from charters.

The union, UTLA, also stepped up pressure on charters that are co-located on traditional school campuses, with a UTLA-led rally at a school in Chinatown and organizing other rallies districtwide.

Charters and their growth were a recurrent theme at board meetings, as were responses and reports by the California Charter Schools Association, including one that charter schools in the state are excelling at getting historically disadvantaged students into college over traditional schools.

Meanwhile, the district was offering up its own plans to stem declining enrollment, focusing in large part on its popular magnet schools. The board approved a $3 million expansion of magnets, delved into why charters were attracting more federal dollars than magnets and voted unanimously to seek help from outside the district to replicate high-achieving schools, including magnets.

In June Great Public Schools Now revealed its long-awaited plan to increase access to high-quality education for tens of thousands of low-income students in Los Angeles and announced its first three grants, though none directly went to district schools. More grants are expected to be announced in the fall.

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GRADUATION RATES

In her first month, King declared it was “all hands on deck” in an internal memo that revealed that only 54 percent of seniors were meeting their A through G requirements and on track to graduate.

A $15 million credit recovery program started in the fall that included online classes and staff interventions was credited with raising the projected rate to 74 percent by the end of the term, topping last year’s rate of 72 percent, while California graduation rates also rose to a new high of 82 percent.

But questions remained about the quality of those online courses, and about the worth of high school diplomas statewide. And while there was much celebration over the improved numbers, still a quarter of all LA Unified seniors, perhaps as many as 10,000, would not celebrating in commencement ceremonies and would be facing uncertain futures.

Even of those graduating and heading to college, a rising percentage find themselves required to take remedial classes, setting them back financially and increasing the likelihood of dropping out.

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ACCOUNTABILITY

A three-year dearth of state data on schools continued to have ramifications and cause deep consternation throughout California.

Most responsible for the dearth is Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been one of the foremost critics of federally driven efforts to use data to improve education — leaving researchers and policymakers in the dark and setting up the possibilities of significant consequences for defying federal guidelines.

Felt most notably is the absence of a single-score method of ranking schools. The Academic Performance Index (API), which reported a single score, was discontinued after 2013 as the state transitioned to the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced tests, which debuted last year.

Then a new accountability system was released in February, but LA Unified said it wouldn’t even consider it, even though it was one of the six school districts that developed it.

The School Quality Improvement Index was developed by the California Office to Reform Education (CORE) and is a significant jump away from API scores because it represents a far more complex and intricate way of ranking schools and incorporates more than just test scores while also valuing how well the neediest students are performing.

Because the state is developing its own guidelines in the wake of new federal legislation, the CORE data will not be reported again after its initial year, but its creators hope that it will influence the state process.

But the data revealed a trove of insights, which LA School Report documented in a number of deep dives inside the system, calculating the scores of all 714 LA Unified schools entered into the data set (which didn’t include charters) and ranking them.

The new data revealed the best and worst of the district. It showed that the district’s 13 lowest performers are all elementary schools, and it looked at the top and bottom elementary schools, the stark differences among middle schools and the high and low high schools (Harbor Teacher Prep Academy at the top, Jordan High at the bottom).

The lack of data also played a notable role in the drama over 20th Street Elementary School, when LA Unified rejected a parent petition to take over the failing elementary school in South Central Los Angeles, asserting that no California school qualifies as failing under the state “parent trigger” law precisely because data no longer exist, meaning no school could be failing.

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TEACHER TENURE AND UNION DUES

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February set off fears of deadlocks and predictions that the Supreme Court could change course on education reform.

Indeed, following Scalia’s death, the Supreme Court split 4-4, upholding mandatory union dues for teachers and other public employees in Rebecca Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which had been called a “life-or-death” case for public employee unions.

Plaintiffs fighting the mandatory dues had been optimistic following January oral arguments, when a 5-4 decision in their favor seemed likely. That calculus changed, however, following Scalia’s death.

A blow to efforts to overhaul California’s teacher tenure laws came in April, when the Court of Appeal overturned a Los Angeles Supreme Court ruling in Vergara v. California, which challenged teacher tenure, layoff laws and dismissal policies. Attorneys representing the students plaintiffs appealed to the California Supreme Court, which must decide whether to take the case by the end of August.

Then in the closing days of June, state lawmakers defeated a bill that would have amended teacher tenure laws and extended the probationary period from two to three years — even after the bill was stripped of its boldest language. The bill, AB 934, had been drafted to address some of the same concerns raised in Vergara.

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