(This story originally appeared in EdSource on August 28, 2017)
The California Department of Education directly runs only three schools, two for deaf children and one for the blind. Under a bill before the Legislature, it would add a fourth — specializing in math and science and serving low-income, ethnically diverse middle and high-school students in Los Angeles County.
The legislation to create a state-authorized, independently managed STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school has the support of heavyweights in high tech, like TechNet, and higher ed, who envision the school meeting an important need: a pipeline of low-income, minority students for eminent universities like MIT and Caltech, which both support the idea. (See letters of support here and here and full list of supporters here on page 2.)
“As the father of a 15-year-old, I’m sensitive to timing and opportunity. We need to move quickly — and every day we don’t is another day students don’t get the benefits,” Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-San Fernando Valley, a co-author of the legislation, said in an interview last month.
But Assembly Bill 1217 also has achieved what few bills do: unifying labor unions, school management organizations and the state Department of Finance in opposition. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who’d be charged with overseeing the school, testified against it, too. Opponents question why the state should get into the business of running more schools, when the backers of the proposed STEM school could pursue their idea by creating a charter school or a district magnet school.
“This bill sets a dangerous precedent for eliminating local control of schools. AB 1217 establishes a new path for schools to be created and authorized at the state level, far from the communities being served and impacted, and directly conflicts with local control,” seven statewide organizations, including the California Teachers Association and the California School Boards Association, wrote in an Aug. 14 letter.
Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Michelle King also questioned the need for the school during a 90-minute school board discussion this month, in which the school board came up one vote short on a resolution to put the board on record against the bill. King said the district has 95 STEM magnet programs and questioned the implication behind the STEM school proposal that the district is incapable of providing adequate math and science education. “I don’t accept that narrative,” she said.
But Seth Litt, executive director of the Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles organization serving low-income families, disagreed. “Although Los Angeles has many schools that are ‘STEM’ in name,” low-income families face “challenges finding a school that truly offers STEM programming, that achieves excellent student outcomes and that is accessible to their community.” He said that his analysis of district data shows that only three of 30 STEM middle schools in Los Angeles Unified show high scores in math, and only one of the three has an enrollment with a majority of low-income students.
Why “the rush”?
Opponents criticize the way the bill is being hurried through the Legislature. In July, Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Pacoima, in San Fernando Valley, introduced the STEM proposal by rewriting his bill that would create a residency program for new teachers, after it had already passed the Assembly. This process, called “gut and amend,” overrides standard deadlines for proposing non-emergency legislation.
“If partners (behind the proposal) are in it for the long haul, what is the rush?” asked Sen. Richard Pen, D-Sacramento, before he and other members of the Senate Education Committee passed the bill, 6-1, last month with Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, opposing.
Gut-and-amend bills usually need the support of legislative leaders, and Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, is involved in difficult discussions with labor unions, which want access to organize employees at the school. De León’s office declined to respond to a request for comment.
There is also an element of secrecy. A nonprofit organization would govern the school but the bill doesn’t specify which one that would be. The bill only would authorize the school’s creation; a plan would then be written for the state superintendent’s review. Neither Bocanegra nor Portantino has identified who’s leading the effort to create the school. Portantino said only during Senate Education Committee testimony last month that a representative of Caltech, which is in his district, phoned to enlist his support.
Opponents assume the proposal is the brainchild of Eli Broad, a billionaire Los Angeles philanthropist and charter school funder. He was a lead campaign contributor behind the election last year of a pro-charter majority to the Los Angeles Unified school board. This month, Broad issued a statement praising the STEM school concept and promised, should the school be established, “to join others in supporting its development.”
The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which released the statement, declined to say if Broad has taken a lead role.
In his statement, Broad said that the school “will be dedicated to delivering an exceptional, public STEM education to students who reflect the diversity of Los Angeles.” Another benefit is that the school “will also strive to provide Los Angeles’ public school STEM teachers with opportunities to collaborate and pursue professional development,” he said.
Broad and others said that the school would be modeled after STEM schools adopted in 14 other states. They also say that the school would be distinct in that science and engineering professors and graduate students would work alongside credentialed teachers.
It’s not clear why this type of collaboration wouldn’t be possible under California’s charter school law. Organizers may believe they’d have more flexibility and less interference by going through the state rather than the district or applying for a charter directly from the Los Angeles County Office of Education — another option.
Opponents say state oversight would eliminate local accountability and reduce the involvement of parents, teachers and community members. The Department of Finance, in its analysis of the bill, said that the state superintendent would not have authority to rescind the school’s approval or take other actions if there were serious problems with its operation.
However, the bill would impose some conditions that go beyond those required of other charters and magnet schools:
- After three years, the state would do a comprehensive evaluation of the school, measuring its effectiveness in graduating students ready for college, the school’s curriculum and teaching methods and an analysis of suspensions and expulsions — a perennial point of contention between school districts and charter schools.
- Three of the seven members of the nonprofit board would be state-appointed: one by UCLA, one by the Senate and one by the Assembly.
- It would be subject to the state’s open meeting law and public records act — which the Legislature so far has been unable to impose on all charters.
A critical vote for AB 1217 will come Friday, when the Senate Appropriations Committee must decide whether to send the bill to the full Senate with its endorsement. To do so, members would have to ignore the usually persuasive voice of the Department of Finance. In an Aug. 21 letter to the committee, the department cited the cost to the state’s General Fund as a reason to oppose the bill: $286,000 per year and $1.4 million over five years to pay for one full-time consultant and partial time of other state employees.
“It sets a precedent for the Superintendent to approve, oversee, monitor, and report on the operation of the school beyond what the Superintendent is required to do with existing state schools,” the analysis said.