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

Burning birthday candle number 1

(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.


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.

Burning birthday candle number 2


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.

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A view from inside LAUSD’s board: Teaching moments from George McKenna and his McKenna-isms

GeorgeMcKennaSmiling387George McKenna is often considered one of the more curmudgeonly characters on the LA Unified school board (although he has some competition). As vice president of the board and the senior member of the seven elected members, McKenna is given a lot of leeway and respect when he has something to say at the board meetings.

And when he does, it often turns into a life story, a history lesson or a smart anecdote from his teaching days ranging back to when he started at LA Unified in 1962.

Here are a few choice McKenna-isms we’ve observed at the school board.

On successful teachers . . .

“I don’t feel sorry for you because you chose to do this. You are putting together something that you must sustain. You are like the land. We can devastate everything else, but the land remains. That’s how we plant the seed, and the fruit is our children.”

On bad teachers . . .

“A lousy teacher is a bad thing to have, it’s like having a lousy doctor: you’re not going to make it.”

On ethnic teachers . . .

“The ethnicity of a teacher has nothing to do with their ability to relate to children. It does not require a black teacher to teach a black child, it does not require a Hispanic teacher to teach a Hispanic child. Melanin does not protect you from racial prejudice. It only protects you from sunburn, that’s about all. I have never found anybody that protected a child against prejudice just because they are black.”

On celebrating successful schools . . .

“We don’t need to celebrate successful schools, that should be expected. It’s like when you take an airplane. You expect it to land; you don’t celebrate that, you expect it. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

On picking a superintendent . . .

“We can have Sleepy, Bashful, Dopey and all of them stand before us, but we are picking a Snow White.”

On the process of picking a superintendent . . .

“We can have all the forms and surveys and input in the world, but what’s going to tell it to me more than anything is when I look the person in the eye and ask them, ‘Why do you want to be superintendent of this district?’ And that’s how I will decide.”

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George McKenna on a school visit with new Superintendent Michelle King.

On community input . . .

“You know, I’m all for community involvement and engagement and such, but the community is who picked us to represent them. No one invited me to sit on the board of their organization to give input. The community gave us this responsibility, let us do it.”

On fellow board member Monica Ratliff . . .

“Miss Ratliff is psychic as well as bright. … I appreciate everything she asks about, especially when it concerns the budgets. No one else is going to read through all these papers like she is.”

On unanimous decisions . . .

“That, we all agree, would be a flawed assumption, especially with the bizarreness of one or two of us.”

On a motion to close a charter school in his district . . .

“These are my children, I walk with them to school, they’ve been there since 1965. I’ve been there and know what they are doing. The objections are bureaucratic, not because of instructions. I will not vote for this.”

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LAUSD returns to as close to normal as possible after one-day scare


Michelle King at press conference


After a long tense day that resulted in all LA Unified schools being closed due to a bomb and weapons threat, normal routines came back to schools across the district this morning.

“Things have gone extraordinarily smoothly,” board President Steve Zimmer told LA School Report. “It’s as close to normal as possible. Even so, we remain in a very protective and a alert stance.”

Some people saw more school police in uniform and a larger Los Angeles police presence around school neighborhoods. Parents were inundated with robo-calls and emails (at least three calls and two emails at some households), explaining the situation and assuring that it is safe for students to return to school.

Zimmer said the district had “absolutely increased the presence of law enforcement and district support personnel.”

At 7:30 last night, the district provided every principal a packet of materials to distribute to teachers this morning to help them talk about the school closure and allay any remaining fears. The district posted information in Spanish and English on their website for parents, too.

“Crisis counselors are available if students want to talk about the incident,” chief deputy superintendent Michelle King said in a statement from the district. “Teachers have been provided lesson plans on how to help youngsters who may feel a little anxious or afraid.”

King notably stepped up front at the final press conference yesterday afternoon, while outgoing superintendent Ramon Cortines stood in the background, even after taking the lead at press conferences earlier in the day. King, who may be a contender for the now-vacant superintendent job, took an angry question from a broadcast reporter who is also a mother, expressing concerns that families were not notified fast enough of yesterday’s closures.

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District makes last push for staff, family input on school calendar


LAUSD is making another strong push for input from families and employees to see what the school schedule should be for the next three years.

And, the district is providing lots of back-up materials to help inform choices, including a comparison of student test scores in traditional school years versus early school calendars, electricity consumption costs for the summer and comparisons to calendars at nearby school districts and colleges.

At issue is whether school should start after Labor Day (a more traditional calendar) or earlier in August, whether elementary and high schools should have different schedules and whether the semesters should be broken up by the winter break. Parents are also asked if they care how long the winter break should be, two weeks or three.

The school board is planning to adopt a final calendar in January, based on recommendations from the superintendent and feedback from the community.

Online surveys are now available through Dec. 6 for parents and guardians as well as for school employees to help hammer out the calendar through 2019. The surveys are also available in Spanish.

“We are always looking for better ways to foster communication between the district and parents, or schools and parents, which is one of our top goals,” said Daryl Strickland, an district spokesman.  “We will look at the results from this effort and others to determine what parents find useful for creating dialogue.”

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LA Unified high school puts a focus on computer science and gaming


Jackie Parades, standing center, teaches game design

At a high school called the Critical Design and Gaming School, you’d think every student had a device on and was playing a game all the time. Not so.

In fact, during one recent morning lesson, students opened up boxes of traditional board games to play with each other.

“They find out pretty quickly it’s not about playing games the whole time,” said computer science teacher Nancy Se. But, the students do learn computer coding, build websites and design games on programs that have created their favorite apps and launched games like Assassin’s Creed. “I teach them that computer science equals wealth equals power, and that is what could happen if you become one of the producers making games.”

It’s no secret that computer gaming is a major segment of of the entertainment industry. It’s also no secret that the gaming field is dominated by white and Asian males.

That’s why, if the black and Latino population of south LA can be introduced to the world of computer design and gaming, then principal Andre Hargunani would have accomplished a major goal. Hargunani came out of school with a computer engineering degree, and he programmed games himself. He could pick any job because there was such a high demand. He chose academia.

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Officials release vote on Supt. Deasy’s job evaluation

Steve Zimmer, left, John Deasy, right

Steve Zimmer, left, John Deasy, right

Via The Los Angeles Times | By Howard Blume

L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy received a positive job evaluation last month from the Board of Education by a vote of 5-1 with one member abstaining, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced Tuesday.

The district had previously refused to disclose the vote, but yielded this week, in an apparent response to a demand from The Times.

Board members endorsing Deasy were board President Richard Vladovic, Steve Zimmer, Monica Garcia, Tamar Galatzan and Bennett Kayser. The opposing vote was cast by Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. Monica Ratliff abstained.

The Oct. 29 evaluation happened in the context of a weeklong leadership crisis that began with Deasy himself, when he told some insiders and district leaders that he intended to resign.  Read full story here.

Previous Posts: Villaraigosa Helped Broker Deal to Keep Deasy Superintendent, Top 5 Lessons From the Deasy Comeback Story, Deasy Staying; Board Extends Contract through June 2016

Morning Read: Board Likely to Back Classroom Breakfast

L.A. Unified Board Will Back Classroom Breakfast Program
A majority of L.A. Unified School Board members said they will vote to continue a classroom breakfast program that feeds nearly 200,000 children but was in danger of being axed after sharp criticism by the teachers union. LA Times
See also: LA School Report, KPCC

The Messy Complications of Breakfast in the Classroom
The Los Angeles Unified School District is in a period of tremendous upheaval that, it’s hoped, will result in better education for its students. With so much changing and so much at stake, of course there are more than a few daggers drawn. But when the teachers union and district administration can’t even get together over feeding hungry kids, something sick is going on. LA Times Opinion

Pre-K Funding is Delivered Another Blow
California state funding per child fell by more than than $400 compared with the previous year, and only 41% of 4-year-olds were served by public pre-K programs and Head Start in the 2011-12 school year, the institute reported. LAT

Washington and Sacramento Must End Cold War on Education
It is too late for California to get more than the sliver of Race to the Top funds it has already received. But the administration’s rejection of California’s NCLB waiver request is too important an issue to accept without further urgent efforts on both sides to reach a resolution. EdSource (opinion)

Walton Foundation Gives $8 Million to StudentsFirst
A foundation associated with the Wal-Mart family fortune has expanded its support for the education advocacy group run by former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. LA Times

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Morning Read: Study Praises Teacher Evaluation Tool

First Academic Study of Controversial LA Unified Teacher Evaluation Program
An academic study of a teacher evaluation method that looks at how much teachers are able to improve students’ test scores gave the pilot program a good grade. But the study comes too late — the teacher’s union and Los Angeles Unified School District agreed not to use the measure in the district’s new teacher evaluation protocols. KPCC

L.A. Unified Fight Focuses on Breakfast Program
Los Angeles Unified will eliminate a classroom breakfast program serving nearly 200,000 children, reject more school police, cut administrators and scale back new construction projects unless the school board votes to approve them, according to Supt. John Deasy. LA Times
See also: LA School Report, Sac Bee, LA Daily News, KPCC

‘Super PACs’ Negate Spending Limits in L.A. Mayor’s Race
As groups raising funds for Greuel and Garcetti pour money into the race — a record $6.1 million so far — voter-approved contribution restrictions become meaningless. LA Times

Eric Garcetti for Mayor
Perhaps most important, Garcetti has demonstrated the capacity to grow, learn and improve his performance. He admits mistakes, such as his vote in favor of a settlement allowing, for a time, virtually unregulated digital billboards. LAT (editorial page)

L.A. Schools Finish One-Two in National Academic Decathlon
After months of preparation, Granada Hills Charter High wins the title for the third straight year. Finishing second was El Camino Real Charter High, a six-time national champion. LA Times
See also: Sac Bee

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District 6 Candidate Commits to Support Deasy

Monica Ratliff. Via LA Times

Concerned that District 6 (East Valley) School Board candidate Monica Ratliff might oppose the leadership of LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, the LA Times editorial page secured a commitment from Ratliff to keep Deasy at the helm of the district as part of re-iterating its endorsement:

“Ratliff, who was a public interest lawyer before she became a teacher, advocates smart solutions to vexing issues — such as improving instruction by giving weak teachers time to sit in on the classes of highly effective ones. She is neither a gung-ho member of the school reform movement nor a backer of the union’s anti-reform rhetoric…. [And] if she were in a position to decide on Deasy’s contract today, she would vote to renew it.” [emphasis added]

Previous posts: Board Candidate Changes Position on Deasy (Again);  District 6 Candidate Hardens Position on DeasyUnion Endorsements Unchanged for District 6

Deasy Requests Changes to Teacher Dismissal Bill

Earlier this week, the LA Weekly honed in on the outsized influence California’s largest teachers union is perceived to have on education policy issues, including recent efforts to speed the removal of sexual predators from the classroom.

“That’s how CTA infamously killed a [2012] law to fire sex-pervert teachers, SB 1530,” LA Weekly writer Matthew Mullins wrote. “A badly watered-down version, AB 375, is alive — because CTA backs it,”

What the LA Weekly didn’t note was that the “badly watered-down” bill moving through the state legislature was amended last week or that LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy has proposed several further changes to make sure that districts have a stronger role in the dismissal process and that teachers who review dismissal cases can be removed if necessary.

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Morning Read: Board Votes to Speed Dismissal Process

LAUSD Board Votes to Improve Abuse Investigations
With 278 Los Angeles Unified educators sitting in “teacher jail,” the school board voted Tuesday to streamline and improve the investigations of those accused of serious physical abuse or sexual misconduct. LA Daily News
See also: LA School Report, LA Times

L.A. Unified Board Ratifies ‘Parent-Trigger’ Partnership
The Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday ratified a partnership between the school district and a charter school to take control of struggling 24th Street Elementary under a controversial parent-empowerment law. LA Times
See also: Color Lines, LA School Report

School Board Renews Contract for Ivy Academia Charter
The petition by Ivy Academia Entreprenurial Charter School was renewed with little discussion, less than two weeks after a jury convicted its founders of grand theft, embezzlement and other charges. LA Times
See also: LA School Report

L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa Challenges on Schools
Unions and other elements of the education establishment strongly backed Antonio Villaraigosa’s steps up the political ladder – until he became an advocate of charter schools, parental empowerment, modifying teacher seniority and tenure and other reforms that the establishment despises. Sac Bee Opinion

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Board Preview Update: Discipline, Misconduct, and Dismissals

The LAUSD Board, via LA Times

The agenda for today’s School Board meeting is packed with hot-topic resolutions, including a plan to streamline LAUSD’s teacher misconduct investigation process, a call to work with state legislators to pass a new teacher dismissal bill, and a plan to reduce student suspensions and discipline for “willful defiance” in LA schools.

These topics have received scads of media coverage and statehouse activity in recent months. LAUSD Board members have obviously been paying attention, and the media is getting behind their resolutions.

Board Member Tamar Galatzan penned an op-ed published Monday in the Huffington Post that explains the rationale behind her resolution to streamline investigations of teachers who have been accused of misconduct in the classroom.

And the LA Times published an editorial piece Tuesday morning urging the School Board to approve Board President Monica Garcia’s resolution that would update schools’ discipline policies across the district and cease the suspension of students for “willful defiance.”

Read on for more details on the resolutions up for vote at today’s School Board meeting.

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Morning Read: Board Considers Speedier Teacher Investigations

L.A. School Board to Consider Faster Investigation of Teachers
Sexual misconduct allegations at Miramonte Elementary School sparked a surge of investigations of Los Angeles teachers, pushing the ranks of those in “teacher jail” to more than 300 — and prompting officials this week to consider the rights of accused employees. LA Times
See also: AP, SI&A Cabinet Report, LA School Report

Teacher Dismissals: How Do We Protect Children and Safeguard Teachers’ Due Process?
Fire them. Dismiss them. Send them back. Let them languish in “teacher jails” while investigations drag on for months — or even years.  There’s got to be a better, quicker and fairer way to get rid of teachers who truly do not belong in the classroom and support those teachers who do. Huff Po Op-Ed by Tamar Galatzan

Deasy Should Be Thrilled With Union’s No Confidence Vote
It means he’s shaking up the moribund Los Angeles Unified School District and bucking the union that has battled every education reform proposed to protect the livelihood of its teachers – a livelihood that has put a stranglehold on education. LA Daily News Editorial

‘Willful Defiance’ in L.A. Schools
A proposal to prevent the suspending of students for a relatively minor infraction deserves the approval of the school board. LA Times Editorial

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Watch: Deasy to Focus on Youth Rights

After the symbolic “no confidence” vote by the Los Angeles teachers union last week, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy gave the LA Daily News his thoughts and described his plans to bring “youth rights” to all students in LA schools:

Watch and read the full Deasy interview at LA Daily News; read LA School Report’s coverage of UTLA’s vote here.

Mixed Reactions to New Teacher Dismissal Bill

Assemblymember Joan Buchanan

AB 375, a new bill meant to streamline teacher dismissals, could be headed for quick passage after clearing the State Assembly’s Education Committee with a 7 – 0 vote Thursday.

The bill’s chance at passing is undoubtedly aided by the announcement last week that the state’s largest teachers union, the California Teachers Association, was joining forces with Assemblymember Joan Buchanan and Senator Alex Padilla to support AB 375.

But the alliance of Padilla and Buchanan and the quick pace of action in the statehouse have left some observers confused and concerned. Is AB 375 a watered-down teacher dismissal bill? Or have the unions, legislators, and education advocates finally come to a working compromise that will help streamline the teacher dismissal process?

Edgar Zazueta, the director of government relations for LAUSD, praised AB 375 as a “step in the right direction.”

But he also expressed reservations.

“I think we’d argue that there’s more consideration to be done here. We thank [Buchanan] for moving in the right direction, but we think we could push envelope a little further,” Zazueta said.

LAUSD, StudentsFirst, EdVoice, and Democrats for Education Reform have expressed a mix of praise and concern.

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Board Member Kayser Relives the 2011 Runoff

Bennett Kayser

Picking up on a comparison LA School Report first made last month, LAUSD Board Member Bennett Kayser published an op-ed in the LA Daily News last week in which he compared his 2011 runoff against Luis Sanchez to this year’s runoff between District 6 candidates Antonio Sanchez and  Monica Ratliff:

“I beat the big money.  My campaign coffers never topped $35,000. My opponent Luis Sanchez raised more than five times as much.”

Read the full Kayser op-ed in the LA Daily News here. Kayser neglects to mention the $1.4 million the teachers union spent on his behalf, which you can read about here, or the stubborn reality that UTLA has endorsed both Sanchez and Ratliff. For Luis Sanchez’s recollections about the 2011 race — and how it compares to 2013, read here.

Morning Read: LA Teachers to Vote on Deasy, District Policies

LAUSD Teachers Set to Vote on Confidence in District, Union Policies
Los Angeles Unified’s 40,000 teachers will be polled next month on their confidence in Superintendent John Deasy and whether they want their union to ratchet up demands for higher pay, smaller classes and an end to many of the district’s reforms. LA Daily News

California Voters Split on Jerry Brown School Plans
Fifty percent agree with the governor’s proposal to give more funds to school districts that serve low-income children. A separate Brown plan to give local districts more funding control is favored by 59%. LA Times

LAUSD Salvages Summer School, but Classes Will Be Limited
Despite fears that Los Angeles Unified would have to cancel summer school this year, officials say they’ll be able to hold a limited number of credit-recovery classes at 16 high school campuses across the sprawling district. LA Daily News

State Educators Support LAUSD Waiver From No Child Left Behind Law
State education officials support efforts by Los Angeles Unified and eight other school districts to get a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, but remain concerned about who would monitor a new accountability system. LA Daily News
See also: EdSource

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Morning Read: Teacher Dismissal Bill Gets New Champion

Sen. Padilla Drops His Teacher Dismissal Bill
Two days after Assemblymember Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, introduced a bill that would make it quicker and potentially cheaper to fire teachers, Sen. Alex Padillo, D-Los Angeles, has shelved his controversial version of a teacher dismissal bill and signed on as a principal co-author of hers. EdSource

L.A.’s Mayoral Rivals Walk Fine Line in Dealing With Labor
Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel are Democrats with long histories of supporting organized labor. But the competition for labor support has upended conventional thinking about the candidates. LA Times

L.A. Unified Officials Let Abuse Allegations Slide, Lawyers Say
Two high-level district employees heard but failed to act on accusations of sexual misconduct by an elementary school teacher, according to attorneys representing alleged victims. LA Times
See also: KPCC, KTLA

LA Unified School Board Blocks Current President From Another Term
The term limit may be the first sign that fewer members on the board of education may support the reform agenda. KPCC

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Morning Read: Pilot Schools Expand in LA

Incubator School in L.A. Sparks Discord Over Location, Teachers
The pilot middle school, which is slated to open next year but lacks a site, will teach students how to launch a business in addition to academics. LA Times

Sun Valley’s Francis Polytechnic High to Convert to Innovative Pilot School
Francis Polytechnic High in Sun Valley will become the first LAUSD campus to convert to a pilot school, which offers greater freedom in scheduling and instruction but also requires teachers to commit annually to the reforms taking place. LA Daily News

LAUSD Teams up With Other Districts to Serve Cheaper, Healthier Lunches
The Los Angeles Unified School District has teamed up with five other large school districts to save money and serve a higher quality menu to students. CBS LA

California Teacher Fund Needs $4.5 Billion Yearly Boost
The California State Teachers’ Retirement System’s $73 billion unfunded liability may be the state’s “most difficult fiscal challenge” and lawmakers should increase funding for the second-largest U.S. pension, the Legislative Analyst’s Office said. Bloomberg
See also: AP

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