An escalating war on LA schools

By  Randy Childs

RAMON CORTINES, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), has a message for thousands of LA teachers: Enjoy the holidays while you can, because many of you will be fired before the coming new year ends.

Due to yet another multibillion-dollar budget deficit in California, Cortines is demanding that all LAUSD employees take a 12 percent pay cut, or the district will slash 8,000 jobs next year. This ultimatum comes on top of a demand for “furlough days” that amounts to a further cut of 3-4 percent.

The budget deficit in the nation’s largest state is projected to be just over $20 billion in 2010. That’s about the same amount as the holiday bonus pool that federal bailout recipient Goldman Sachs has ready for its employees this holiday season.

Cortines gave our union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), and other unions representing LAUSD employees a December 8 deadline to accept the massive pay cut–or else. But UTLA sent the superintendent a different message.

More than 1,000 teachers, students and parents protested outside of LAUSD headquarters at a UTLA-sponsored rally, where one teacher’s handmade picket sign explained that LAUSD stands for “Literally Abusing and Undermining Schoolteachers’ Dedication.”

UTLA Elementary Vice President Julie Washington spoke to the defiant crowd about the rotten priorities we’re facing. “When they spend $1 million per solider per year to send more troops to Afghanistan, but they can’t get adequate money for education, we say that they have to do better by our students.”

Meanwhile, inside LAUSD’s gleaming downtown skyscraper, the school board was voting 6-1 to ratify the superintendent’s slash-and-burn budget, which will include raising class sizes to 29 for Kindergarten through third grade. Just last year, K-3 class sizes were at 20, a number that was established in the 1990s and directly correlates to the rapid rise in LAUSD third graders’ reading and standardized test scores over the last decade.

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AS CRUEL as these cutbacks will be for LA’s teachers and students, it turns out that Cortines was just getting warmed up. On December 9–one day before Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited the LAUSD–Cortines announced his plan to “reconstitute” Fremont High School in South Central LA under the provisions of the federal government’s misnamed No Child Left Behind law at the end of this school year.

Reconstitution means firing the entire staff of a school and forcing them to sign a special agreement as part of the process of reapplying for their own jobs. Of all the so-called “remedies” for low-performing schools under NCLB, reconstitution has been proven the worst over the years in terms of its effect on student achievement.

Over 99 percent of Fremont’s students are Latino and African American, much like the schools that Arne Duncan reconstituted (he likes to call them “turnarounds”) when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

Cortines points to Fremont’s low standardized test scores and “Program Improvement” status as justification for reconstitution. In fact, Fremont met its goals for improving test scores, graduation rates and the performance of special education students this year. And while Fremont’s scores are among the lowest of LAUSD high schools, the two lowest-scoring schools on the list are Green Dot charter schools.

Green Dot is a deep-pocketed charter management organization that was given control over Locke High School last year. After imposing school uniforms on its students and drawing criticism for establishing a militaristic police presence on campus and pushing large numbers of at-risk students to neighboring schools, Green Dot proceeded to produce the same low test scores that Locke had before they took over.

For its part, what Fremont “failed” at was the administrative benchmark of forcing 95 percent of its students to endure the soul-sucking California Standards Test. Fremont tested 3,460 of its 3,648 students, which works out to 94.85 percent. The arbitrary and bizarre nature of this 95 percent requirement is only underlined by the fact that every parent has the absolute legal right to refuse to let their students take the standards test.

Ramon Cortines will deny this to his grave, but the real reason that Fremont was picked was to send a message to UTLA. Fremont has a tradition and reputation of strong UTLA activism among its teachers. If they can destroy Fremont to “save” it, they can do it to any of our schools.

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CORTINES DOESN’T give a damn about improving the education that students at Fremont or any other LAUSD school receive. He only cares about scapegoating teachers for the crisis at our underfunded public schools. He wants to punish UTLA for daring to stand up for teachers on the job, and for democratic school reform that could shake off the bureaucratic straitjacket which his army of six-figure administrators have blindly imposed on our schools.

Meanwhile, LAUSD remains poised to hand over up to 36 schools to charter management organizations and other private entities under the (also misnamed) “public school choice” resolution passed by the school board in August.

The same six school board members who just voted to stuff 29 Kindergarteners into a classroom were falling over themselves to pose as champions of schoolchildren with their support for what many teacher activists are now calling the “public school giveaway” motion.

Overseeing LAUSD’s process of deciding who will run these 12 existing and 24 new schools is Matt Hill, a special assistant to Cortines whose entire salary is being paid by billionaire real estate mogul and alleged “philanthropist” Eli Broad, according to the Los Angeles Times. Broad is also a major funder of several charter school operators like Green Dot, Alliance and KIPP–all of which have submitted bids to run more LAUSD schools under the public school giveaway motion.

There was no mention in the Times article about whether Messrs. Cortines and Broad have asked Matt Hill to take the same 12 percent pay cut they’re demanding from teachers, bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers.

As this article was being written, LAUSD took its war on teachers to the next level with a press release titled “Superintendent Cortines Targets Underperforming Teachers.” While not spelling out any specific new policies, Cortines is ratcheting up pressure on administrators to fire “low-performing” teachers more quickly.

“The days of coddling ineffective teachers, or allowing them to be moved to another school, are over,” Ramon the schoolmaster intoned. “Mediocrity is no longer acceptable. No more excuses.”

When parents, UTLA members and students were picketing LAUSD and fighting against the class-size increases and teacher layoffs that Cortines imposed on our schools last spring, the superintendent was full of excuses for his despicable actions.

If anyone at LAUSD deserves to be “reconstituted,” it’s the superintendent and his privately funded hit man.

Posted at Socialist Worker

Also see Portland teachers demand a contract

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