When Schools Work … For Them – The Impact of Insiders on Education in Los Angeles Over the Past Quarter Century, Part One

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Building on my last two posts from last Wednesday and Friday, I want to dive straight into the detail of what makes “When Schools Work” …

… a book that doesn’t.

My methodology for the next few posts in the series will be straightforward.

I will go to the book’s concluding chapter, “Pluralistic Politics and Institutional Reform,” and will focus on the section entitled “Explaining the Mystery: What Policy Logics Worked.” This is the section where Fuller attempts to sum up the book’s overall findings.

The section contains two primary sub-parts:

  • The Inside Game Yields Results
  • Outside Agitators Bring Gains and Inequality

My analysis focuses mainly on the findings included within those sections. In some cases, I refer back to other sections of the book that cover the same material in greater depth. In a few instances, I incorporate a consideration of additional sources that are referenced in the book’s footnotes. Finally, I throw in some screenshots and links to materials I’ve come across during my couple decades obsessing on all things charter and Los Angeles, which I hope will cast some additional light on the subject.

Later I will return to other topics Fuller also gets wrong, including:

  • United Way Naiveté and the Real Political Dynamics that Drove Change in Los Angeles
  • Whither Los Angeles in the Era of 1505

I envision several posts spread out over the next month or so, giving me space to also keep up my writing about other charter school developments happening across the country right now.

Let’s get to it.

When Schools Work … for Them – The Impact of Insiders on Education in Los Angeles Over the Past Quarter Century

Within the section entitled The Inside Game Yields Results, Fuller posits that five accomplishments have been driven by people who he characterizes as Insiders.

  1. The district-wide adoption of Open Court and investment in teacher professional development in the early 2000s.
  2. The building program the district undertook to get students off a multi-year calendar.
  3. The effort the district undertook to increase the number of students completing a college-ready course of study.
  4. The progress the district made allocating more money to schools serving high-need students.
  5. The impact of new schools operated by the district.

In each of these five areas, “When Schools Work” doesn’t work.

Today we dive into the first two.

Open Court and Teacher PD – How Insiders Unwound Results

As a teacher within the system who had seen the utter lack of instructional coherence across LA schools arising from the district’s failure to systemically support teachers to improve instruction, I have no quibble with the book’s finding that a shift to Open Court and investment in teacher PD probably contributed to NAEP score improvements in the early 2000s.

As Roy Romer said on C-SPAN in his early days as superintendent …

The most challenging thing is don’t let them get you off point. Keep your focus. In real estate they say three things are important. Location, location, location. In education, three things are important to me. They are instruction, instruction, instruction. I tell you, everyday I go to work, people want to get me off on other subjects. And I really have to concentrate. We’re not going to change these systems until we improve what happens in every classroom.

… the most important thing to him was improving instruction at scale. And for that to happen, in his opinion, teachers had to be supported to become experts in how children learn.

The fact that Romer was even in the position to appear on C-SPAN as the Los Angeles Superintendent was the result of a political miracle.

For decades, as this authoritative study on Los Angeles Unified School board elections recounts …

… UTLA had been building its political strength such that, by the late 80’s, its power over the LAUSD board was unquestioned. This is how Stephanie Clayton described the situation in 1989 when UTLA had won yet another round of elections further solidifying its grip over the board.

The consequence of these races was contrary to [UTLA President] Wayne Johnson’s statements earlier in the campaign. While he had attested before the primaries that UTLA merely wanted access to board members and denied trying to control them, the message the union sent was clear. Walters had recognized it in 1987, Greenwood was the first casualty, and Korenstein openly acknowledged the union’s necessity in winning school board elections. While Johnson had been humble before the June election and the May strike, he was much more candid afterwards. He asserted that the “political strength of teachers cannot be underestimated” and that “the message is you better listen to us or you are in political trouble.”

While teacher control over governing and administrating a school or district could be seen as desirable, control of any politically elected office by a union is not. The union’s control over policy decisions was directly linked to their ability to raise the increasingly staggering sums of money needed for each candidates’ reelection bids or, if thwarted in its endeavors, to raise funds for the challenger who would most likely defeat the incumbent. While union support did not guarantee that a board member would follow all union directives, it did ensure that they would think seriously before opposing the union and would only do so if they had equally strong supporters outside of UTLA. This would not be the case districtwide until the end of the next decade. 

The development that came along at “the end of the next decade” was Los Angeles Mayor Riordan deciding that something needed to be done.

In 1999, after a long history of essentially ceding school board elections to insiders, Riordan helped recruit and fund a slate of reform candidates …

… who won, setting off seismic change in the district …

… allowing for the highly improbable hiring of a leader who was understood to be incredibly gifted politically.

What surprised many observers was the degree to which the former governor dove deeply into instructional matters. With the new board’s strong mandate at his back, Romer quickly initiated a district-wide adoption of a new curriculum and the creation of regional structures within the district designed to support a massive investment in professional development.

Beginning in 2000, the Los Angeles Unified School District embarked on a top-to-bottom reform effort that was outlined in a Five-Year Strategic Plan submitted by Superintendent Roy Romer to the Board of Education in May 2002. The plan was intended to focus the district’s collective energy on raising student achievement and upgrading and expanding the school system’s buildings and facilities. The plan set forward a number of ambitious academic goals for the school district, including: improved student reading and writing skills across all grade levels; improved student skills and understanding in mathematics across all grade levels; [and] focused professional development as the key to improving classroom practice …

Within a few years, Los Angeles was seen to be leading the nation in a different way of teaching …

… which helped catalyze an almost immediate improvement in test scores …

It was a way of teaching, it bears mentioning, that time has shown to be more effective than other methods that were in common use then.

These days they call Romer’s approach the “Science of Reading.”

And teacher unions are all for it.

But back then, they hated it …

… with some teachers calling colleagues supporting the program “Open Court police.”

The arrival of literacy coaches … is producing anxiety on campuses. The coaches are supposed to assist teachers with the Open Court program, but some instructors wonder if the newcomers are going to keep a close eye on classroom practices. Some teachers refer to the coaches as the “Open Court police.”

So when UTLA got back its political bearings and kicked out enough of the reformers on the school board to retake control of the district …

… the first thing they did was to begin … “defunding the police.”

A couple years later, UTLA members expressed no confidence in Romer.

A year after that, he was gone …

… exasperated by teacher union-aligned board members wanting less change on the one hand, and a growingly assertive mayor …

… wanting much more change on the other.

Romer’s successor …

… lasted just two years and four months before being fired by the board.

It was a length of service that is exactly average for superintendents since UTLA’s rise to ascendency in the late 80’s. (15 superintendencies across 35 years = 2.33 years of service.)

In fact, amazingly, in the long line of superintendents over the past three and a half decades …

… Romer’s six years of service was the very longest.

Much of these parts of the story, including UTLA’s historic control of the school board and the revolving door of leadership at the top, Fuller leaves out of his account altogether.

But the part that he does include – the district’s short-lived adoption of Open Court and investment in teacher professional development– he accurately recounts.

My disagreement is not with Fuller’s rendering of the history but with his summary conclusion that the Open Court episode is somehow an example of insiders yielding results.

It is, in fact, exactly the opposite.

It’s an example of insiders unwinding results.

It’s an example of one of the most adept politicians of his era, a former Democratic governor and former General Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, being unable to navigate the politics of maintaining a reading program!

This, CharterFolk, is not an example of “when schools work.”

It’s a tragic study in when they don’t.

And much like there is a science to reading, there is a science to understanding what it is that makes our large urban school districts so dysfunctional.

As axiomatic as anything Newton discovered, there are laws of the universe at play inside places like LAUSD …

… with the first one being that insiders fundamentally don’t care about whether schools work.

What they care about is whether the schools work for themselves.

For the insiders themselves.

And when a a supposedly immovable political object like Roy Romer comes along and begins to implement a program whose primary purpose is not whether schools work for the insiders but whether they work for students …

… the system has an irresistible force it brings to bear on that immovable object.

And always, as certain as the sun will rise tomorrow …

… within six years maximum

… the immovable object proves movable.

The irresistible force prevails, returning the system to its inevitable equilibrium …

… which is one that works for the insiders.

School Bonds that Work … For Them – How Outsiders, Not Insiders, Drove Change Helping The District Get Off Its Multi-Track Calendar

The second accomplishment over the past 25 years that Fuller points to is the successful effort to build the new facilities needed to get the district off its multi-track calendar which was doing so much harm to hundreds of thousands of students in Los Angeles.

Again, let me be clear:

My argument is not with Fuller’s conclusion that getting off the multi-track calendar was an important achievement.

Amy and I both worked on campuses implementing the 163-day multi-track calendar. We were both “B-Trackers” …

… the least desirable track from many people’s perspective.

It was the one that most teachers would leave as soon as they got enough seniority to bump out others, leaving the most inexperienced teachers (like Amy and me when we were first hired, though both of us stayed on B-Track through our entire seven years of teaching) concentrated among those students who had the very highest needs.

The multi-track system was terrible for all.

But for the absolute most vulnerable, it was even worse.

So no doubt, putting an end to all that was a massive accomplishment.

What I find objectionable, though, is Fuller’s contention that insiders somehow got this done, and that we should think of the whole episode as another example of “When Schools Work.”

In my opinion, neither could be further from the truth.

The district was able to get off their year round calendar because of two massive contributions that came from the charter school world.

The first came from charter school supporters who bankrolled the passage of Prop 39, which dropped the threshold for the passage of local facilities bond from 66.7% to 50%.

And let’s remember here. It was very close whether that proposition would pass.

But ultimately charter school supporters’ resources got it over the finish line.

It led immediately to an explosion in the number of new bond measures being proposed by school districts across the state …

… including a massive new one in Los Angeles.

California Secretary of State records show that, in 2004, 171 new school bond measures were proposed. 64 of them passed by the lower threshold (between 55% and 66.7%) that was then allowed under the Prop 39 change …

… including Measure R.

Ultimately over $20 billion in facilities bond funding ended up coming to Los Angeles Unified in the first decades of the 21st century, allowing for the creation of 131 new school buildings with the capacity to serve an additional 170,000 students.

But not even that was enough to take care of the problem.

It required also the second great contribution of the Los Angeles charter school movement, which was to summon the resiliency and resourcefulness needed to develop new school facilities for tens of thousands of additional students, students who would otherwise have had to attend the very same schools the district was attempting to return to a single-track calendar.

Watts Learning Center is emblematic.

Presented famously by the LA Times as a school that started “from scratch” …

… Watt Learning Center opened in a Baptist church in 1997 and moved several times in its early years until finally completing its long dreamed-of facility …

Watts Learning Center Co-Founder Eugene Fisher

… in 2008, the school’s eleventh year of operation.

Scores of other charter schools faced similar challenges …

…leading to the creation of a new facilities program at the state level …

… that, by 2005, was helping finance large numbers of charter school facilities projects in Los Angeles.

Other projects were supported by ExED, which began aggregating philanthropy …

… and offering different forms of financing, including New Markets Tax Credits, to large numbers of Los Angeles charter schools.

Before the end of the decade, the district was showing encouraging progress toward its long term goal …

… until finally, in a triumph for hundreds of thousands of students and families, the district was able to once and for all end its nearly four-decade dependency on the multi-track calendar.

Now, our point here, of course, is not that there was no insider contribution whatsoever to this accomplishment. Romer’s team and others thereafter successfully managed a large number of construction projects to completion and deserve their kudos.

But many of these projects were of absolutely gargantuan expense …

… replete with extravagances like “talking benches” at RFK High, the most expensive public school facility ever to have been constructed in the United States. The per student seat cost at RFK was $140,000 …

seven-times the cost of facilities that Los Angeles charter schools were developing at the same time.

To some degree, we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We knew that there were likely to be many extravagant projects like this that insiders would choose to undertake with their new funding.

What we didn’t expect, though, was for insiders to be so quick to renege on what we considered the very heart of the bargain – that in exchange for helping traditional public schools access unprecedented new bond revenues, charter school students would be offered facilities that were reasonably equivalent to the facilities provided students attending district schools.

This is is where I just fundamentally disagree with what is presented in “When Schools Work.”

Contrary to what Fuller reports, charter school funders did not make their contributions to the campaign because they had suddenly seen the light and had decided they wanted to finally do something noble for students in traditional public schools.

The funders’ ultimate goal was to help all kids like it had always been, of course, but their primary objective in supporting Prop 39 was making sure that, in the helping of all public schools to access improved facilities, charter schools would get their fair share.

Nothing extravagant.

Not talking benches or anything.

Just your everyday dumb school desks.

But sadly, instead, LAUSD insiders decided they could just leave charter school students standing …

… literally not even bothering to respond to requests for facilities that came from charter schools in the years after the passage of Prop 39 …

… such that we had to sue them …

… and appeal all the way up to the state Supreme Court …

… just to get marginal improvements in offers that common sense found to still be woefully short of reasonable equivalency.

It revealed a corollary to the axiom that we articulated above.

Just as insiders‘ primary concern is not schools that work, but rather, schools that work … for themselves

So, too, is insiders’ primary concern not bond programs that work, but rather, bond programs that work … for themselves.

What else explains how over the past 20 years, as is recounted in “When Schools Work,” that scores of new pilot schools and hundreds of new magnet schools have been made, and never once has there been a controversy about co-locating any of those programs on a district campus?

It’s because they’re schools that insiders obviously recognize to be operated by insiders themselves. So, thus, do the simple thing and just get them the facilities they need. It’s not that hard.

But propose to co-locate a charter school on a district campus, a school that is thought to be operated by outsiders?

Why suddenly you have armageddon on your hands!

It’s cause (literally, CharterFolk, I’m not making this up) to launch a caravan of honking cars into the neighborhoods of charter school board members where insiders scream through bullhorns that the Prop 39 application that the school has submitted to the district is literally “endangering the lives of students, families and teachers.”

What we end up with, CharterFolk, is a circumstance across the entire district that approximates what we see at Belmont High.

Belmont, as this EdSource story reminds us, once housed more than 5,000 students.

Today it has but 600.

This is the same Belmont, by the way …

… whose campus was found to have leaking methane gas, requiring extensive mitigation efforts, bringing the entire project cost …

… to more than $400 million, meaning that, until RFK High School and its talking benches came along a few years later, it was the most expensive high school in the history of the United States.

(And for the record, based upon current enrollment levels, the project came in at approximately $667,000 per student seat.)

During my final months on the job at CCSA, I visited a charter school that was co-located on the Belmont campus. The campus felt essentially deserted. I walked what seemed like a quarter mile across the central quad without encountering a soul before coming to the separate annex where the charter school was housed. The school had been crammed into just a few classrooms on the second and third floors. The art studios and other program enhancements the school desperately wanted to offer its students it couldn’t because LAUSD just wouldn’t give them the additional space.

It violated their “norming ratios.”

And so the school was shoe-horned into plainly inadequate facilities on a campus where the school’s students and teachers would walk past long hallways of unused classrooms several times a day.

It is this kind of treatment repeated over and over again in contexts throughout Los Angeles that lets charter schools know that insiders’ primary concern is not managing the district’s bond programs or allocating the district’s facilities in ways that work for students and families …

… but rather, to do so in ways that work for the insiders themselves.

And so today in 2022, during a time when LAUSD has ended up serving hundreds of thousands of students fewer than it has built for, having spent tens of billions of bond dollars that we helped them access, resulting in them having thousands upon thousand of unused classrooms in hallways across the district, even then, insiders still won’t make something reasonably equivalent available to charter school kids.

It leaves charter schools …

… with no choice …

… even today …

… but to keep building school facility …

… after school facility …

… in many cases …

…within walking distance of district facilities they know to be, like Belmont, vastly under-utilized.

Having seen these same dynamics play out again and again in my nearly twenty years of charter school advocacy, none of this surprises me in the least.

What does surprise me, though is someone taking such a long, deep look at the situation, as Bruce Fuller has, and then somehow concluding that Insiders Have Yielded Results for kids and families …

… and that somehow the experience in Los Angeles over the past 25 years has been some societal demonstration of “When Schools Work.”