Like my neighbors, it wasn’t until millions of dollars began pouring into my little, local school district that I first paid any attention to the Los Angeles school board race. Most of us were too busy with common travesties in our schools, like sluggish fundraising and chronic understaffing, to notice.
In short order, it became clear that this was an end-game for a massive national power struggle in the “dismantle-and-privatize-our-government” game. This has been a campaign of Herculean scale, including assaults on checks and balances, free thinking and the bulwark of labor unions.
Where have I been? Without ever noticing it, I was moved into a constituency camp termed “parent” and consigned to a group I never knew was conscripted. I was ascribed a whole host of concerns and partisan viewpoints I did not know were mine.
For those who haven’t followed the L.A. school board election closely, it attracted national attention and millions in outside money. The contributions—from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee, among others—flowed to school-board candidates who support charter schools, new teacher evaluations based on student test scores, and overhauling teacher tenure. It turns out that an incumbent aligned with Superintendent John Deasy and an incumbent supported by the teachers union each won Tuesday night.
I have come to feel like a tiny character in a large-scale, nationwide children’s battle of good and evil. Far up there in the stratosphere—about 3,000 miles away, in fact—Dementors leaned in on our little neighborhood, angling to suck the soul out of our power of choice, our independently elected school board.
It sounds hysterical and fantastical, but reading up on the so-called “school reform movement” of the past decade reveals a presence that’s nothing short of democracy-threatening. With a multi-million dollar war chest donated by the one percent who range from nominal Democrats to Libertarians right on through to ultra-right foreign-born moguls, our tiny corner of the world has become a microcosm for class warfare.
It turns out—I just never noticed—that my school board district (which encompasses hundreds of square miles, so it’s hardly little at that) is home to more charter schools than just about anywhere on the planet. And to the uninitiated, these charter schools wouldn’t really signal anything terribly nefarious. After all, the opportunity to involve your child in an angle on education that’s a little bit unorthodox seems terrific, right? And the word “choice” is clearly unassailable—who could possibly object to a little leavening in the educational mix?
Yet the reform agenda seeks to install privately established, isolated, corporately run charter schools, which are at best no worse than their public counterparts, and reach a small, select subset of the public besides. The reality is that they result in breathtaking segregation and privation, and an impoverished educational landscape.
As the child of educators, living in the education and research business myself, I have a hard time finding too much fault with efforts aimed at the transcendental question of how best to educate our children. The legacy of our educational system in the recent past has been less than exemplary, especially among select demographics.
“Reform” is a fine goal, as unassailable as “choice.” Furthermore, there is common cause with corporations that want our children to learn skills useful for the modern economy. Reforming our schools by addressing the impediments to our children’s learning is vital, and there is no inherent reason not to use corporate dollars toward that end.
However, there’s been no offer of such massive funds to go toward present-day, under-resourced institutions. While those campaign contributions could have a significant impact on our school campuses directly, instead they are devoted to closing down what was.
Rather than working with teachers and administrators and the other components that compose the scaffolding of our social fabric, the self-appointed leaders of the current school reform movement are dead-set on removing incumbents and installing challengers instead.
This election silhouettes how reform never was part of the agenda at all. Revolution is.
With its shockingly outsized spending, this election has revealed a hidden agenda, as old as the hills. Within massive institutions and systems is embedded the opportunity for equally massive personal gain. A prerequisite is private control, wrenched from what was formerly public, democratic governance. Couching this banality of greed in educational ideology has been an effective strategy, but the results in L.A. suggest a whisper of increasing awareness and resistance to unbridled, unjustified change.
What do public-school parents here want? The answer is the same kind of schools that reformers demand for their children: low student-to-teacher ratios, safe and stimulating environments, opportunities for the arts, design, dance, music, sports, scientific laboratories and so forth.
The “school reform” emperor has no clothes. The evidence is arriving at last. I’m glad Steve Zimmer won his LAUSD4 race. But make no mistake: this is a small battle in a much larger war.
Sara Roos, a biostatistician, is a politically active resident of Mar Vista, Calif., and the parent of two LAUSD students.