By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
In 2006, the relatively small Inglewood Unified School District (IUSD) had over 18,000 students and was a fiscally sound competent system. Today, IUSD has 8,400 students, is 30 percent privatized and drowning in debt. In 2012, the state of California took over the district, usurped the authority of the elected school board and installed a “State Trustee” to run it. IUSD is on its sixth state-appointed trustee in six years.
This crisis was created by politicians and wealthy elites. It did not just happen. Understanding the privatization of Inglewood’s schools through the choice agenda is instructive of the path that could lead to the end of public schools in California.
Kicking Off the Choice Agenda
Inglewood is east of the 405 freeway in Los Angeles County between Watts and the Los Angeles International Airport. Today, it is part of a giant urban megalopolis but 50 years ago it was a distinctly separate community that was predominantly middle class and mostly white. Now it is populated mainly by working-class poor African Americans and Hispanics. A vast 84.8 percent of the students in Inglewood qualify as socioeconomically disadvantaged.
IUSD was originally incorporated in 1888. I asked Professor Larry Lawrence to help me understand Inglewood’s schools. He replied, “Of course, if you want a long view of Inglewood schools I would be glad to go through the history. My mother began attending them in 1914, graduated from Inglewood High School in 1926, came back to teach in 1929, and stayed for 41 years. I also went all the way through and came back to teach, leaving in 1966 to go to UCLA (just after the Watts Riots of the summer of 1965 – no connection to me leaving).”
Larry taught mathematics at Morningside High School. The enrollment records at Morningside mirrors what has happened to enrollment in IUSD. In the 2005-2006 school year, the high school enrolled 1,535 students. This year (2017-2018) the enrollment dropped to 751. What happened?
To understand the causes for the harm to Inglewood’s public schools and how profoundly unjust those causes are, one must first know about standardized testing and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The most important metric for judging schools and teaching utilized by NCLB were the “objective” results of standardized testing. Unfortunately, the big standardized test is completely useless for evaluating schools, teachers or learning.
In 1998, an Australian, Noel Wilson, wrote a definitive paper, “Education Standards and the Problem of Error,” showing why standardized testing should not be used to evaluate schools or teaching. His work has been verified repeatedly. The education writer, Alfie Kohen, wrote in his 1999 book The Schools Our Children Deserve: “… eliminate standardized tests, since we could get the same results by asking a single question: ‘How much money does your mom make?’” The only correlated result from standardized testing is the economic condition of the students to their test scores.
In 2001, President George Bush (R) and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy (D) teamed up to pass NCLB. This law required every state to adopt standards and institute standardized testing. The federal government then used the state testing data to decide if schools were making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward 100 percent of their students being proficient in math and English by 2014. The law also “disaggregated” results by subgroups such as English language learners, special education, white, African American, Hispanic and others. If any one of those subgroups failed AYP, then the school failed.
A first-year AYP failure was not a serious problem but the second consecutive year of failure to meet AYP goals meant being designated a “School in Need of Improvement” (SINI). This designation came with several requirements including sending a letter to parents telling them that the school was failing to meet AYP. It gave parents a list of options such as free tutoring and transfer to a non-failing school. The federal government designated Morningside High School a SINI in 2005 so before the 2006-2007 school year every parent got a letter saying the school was failing according to the United States Department of Education.
Because, nearly 85 percent of students in Inglewood met the definition of socioeconomic disadvantaged and standardized testing accurately reflected economic condition, all the schools in the IUSD were soon labeled failing by the federal government. Concurrent with these completely illegitimate conclusions the district started its precipitous decline.
Alfie Kohn published a 2004 article he called, “Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow; Using Accountability to ‘Reform’ Public Schools to Death.” In it, he discussed the idea that the NCLB accountability measures were purposely designed to open a path for privatizing schools. He wrote,
“As Lily Tomlin once remarked, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.’”
“We now have corroboration that these fears were entirely justified. Susan Neuman, an assistant secretary of education during the roll-out of NCLB, admitted that others in Bush’s Department of Education ‘saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda – a way to expose the failure of public education and ‘“blow it up a bit’’’ (Claudia Wallis, ‘No Child Left Behind: Doomed to Fail?’, Time, June 8, 2008).”
It is a widely held conclusion that NCLB was a failed education initiative. If privatizing schools was its true intent, then NCLB was a success.
Invasion of the Charter
Reed Hastings CEO of Netflix was such a heartfelt liberal that he even joined the Peace Corps and taught mathematics in Africa. That is his only teaching experience. In 2000, he used his vast wealth to get the cap on charter schools in California lifted. He also told a gathering of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) that elected school boards are anachronisms and should be replaced by non-profits running charter schools.
In 2000, Proposition 39 was also supported by Reed Hastings and other pro-school-privatization billionaires. Due to the no-new-tax mantra of conservatives, schools were having a difficult time raising money to build needed facilities. Proposition 39 lowered the vote threshold required to pass a bond. Unfortunately, hidden within the law’s language was a requirement for underutilized public schools to share their facilities with charter schools. With no debate, the public unknowingly voted for co-location of charter schools with public schools.
When proposition 39 is coupled with the pro-charter authorizing system in California, citizens lose all democratic control over their local schools. As former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch shared:
“District officials in California have confided in me that it is virtually impossible to stop a charter proposal, no matter how bad it is or how little it is needed. If the district turns down the proposal, the charter advocates appeal to the Los Angeles County School Board, where they are often approved. In the off-chance that both the district and the county turn down their proposal, the advocates appeal to the state, where they are almost certain to win approval.”
At the start of the millennium, Inglewood had 18 schools. Now, it has at least 31 schools.
With the federal government proclaiming that IUSD schools are failing, a fertile area for charter school establishment was cultivated. Most people do not know much about schools and education policy so of course, many concerned parents wanted to move their children out of the “failing district schools.”
The IUSD schools were never failing nor are charter schools their equivalent. Certainly, there are some good classrooms in charter schools but they come with the charter industries’ record of fraud, abuse, and instability. When one of these private businesses closes their doors as has happened too frequently, district schools must take in all their students. Unlike charter schools, public schools cannot reject a student.
Professor Gordon Lafer recently published the paper Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts which shows that a significant amount of the costs for a student stays with the district when a student transfers to a charter school. In addition, Lafer noted that charter schools avoid special education students and most especially higher cost more severely handicapped special education students.
The above chart is based on enrollment data for the 2017-2018 school year. It shows that Inglewood charter schools are avoiding more than half their share of special education students. Also, the total number of students enrolled in Inglewood charter and public schools combined is almost 5,000 less than the 2006 public school enrollment of 18,000. It appears that there are fewer students in the district and some resident students are attending schools outside of the district boundaries.
The State of California has Failed Inglewood
On April 6, 2018, the sixth Inglewood state trustee, Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, wrote parents about the district’s budget,
“When I began in August, I learned that the district faced an $8 million shortfall.”
“The result of rising costs and Inglewood Unified’s inadequate planning, even after the cost savings measures implemented to date, as of March 15th is now a $7 million budget shortfall.”
San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) has 130,000 students. It is 15.5 times larger than IUSD. A $7 million deficit for IUSD is equivalent to a $108 million deficit for SDUSD.
In 2012, the Daily Breeze reported on Kent Taylor the first “State Trustee” assigned to Inglewood,
“… Taylor was thrust into a high-profile, high-pressure situation when California state schools chief Tom Torlakson recruited him from the top job at the Southern Kern Unified School District in hopes Taylor could rescue Inglewood Unified from the financial quicksand.”
“Two months later, he was pressured to resign for making financial commitments with the teachers union without approval from the California Department of Education.”
What happened with Taylor was never fully explained. He got a job in the neighboring Lennox school district and within the year became their superintendent. He is still the superintendent in Lennox.
The state replaced Taylor with the school finances leader serving directly under him, La Tanya Kirk-Carter. She had been recruited from Beverly Hills Union High School District by the state to head up the business division and “help lead the recovery.” She was supposed to be a temporary replacement until a new permanent trustee was hired but served out the rest of the 2012-2013 school year.
The third Trustee assigned by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson was veteran administrator Don Brann. He was still serving as Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Da Vinci Schools, college-preparatory charter schools in Hawthorne. For 15 years, Brann was Superintendent of the Wiseburn School District in Hawthorne, which is a close neighbor to Inglewood.
In a somewhat ironic twist, Brann’s success in turning around Wiseburn School District (WSD) was partially due to his inter-district enrollment plan, a plan that drew students from IUSD. WSD increased enrollment by touting the district’s small class sizes and availability of space for after-school programs to attract students from surrounding areas.
Brann resigned after one year and Torlakson recruited Vincent Mathews the leader of the San Jose schools to be the Trustee. Mathews is a 2006 alumnus of the unaccredited Broad Academy for school administrators. He also served as Educator in Residence at the NewSchools Venture Fund. In 2001, Mathews was principal of the for-profit Edison Charter Academy.
Mathews stayed 18 months in Inglewood before accepting the Superintendents position in San Francisco. He is the longest serving state trustee so far.
About Mathew’s tenure, the LA Times noted,
“A recent report by the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team found that, under Matthews, Inglewood had left day-to-day tasks to consultants, hadn’t monitored its budget and had underestimated its salary costs by about $1 million. The district had also overestimated its revenue, in part by incorrectly counting the number of students.”
Jason Spencer became Torlakson’s fifth appointment when he was selected Interim State Administrator to succeed Matthews.
Now, Inglewood has another Broad Academy graduate from the class of 2006, Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana. Her bio at the Broad Center says,
“Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana began her career as a bilingual first-grade teacher and brought her first-hand teaching experience to leadership roles in several urban school districts throughout Southern California — including Pomona, Santa Ana and Los Angeles — as well as the U.S. Department of Education, where she served as assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. In that role, she helped draft the Blueprint for Reform, an Obama administration plan for continuing improvements begun in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”
Is this the Future?
NCLB set the table. Students in poor communities were guaranteed to produce bad test results. Billionaires were pouring huge money into developing the charter school industry. State leaders were putting privatization friendly leaders in charge of school districts. The state trustees were never in place long enough to provide stable leadership.
Eli Broad attended public school and went on to become the only person ever to develop two Fortune 500 companies, Sun America and KB Homes. Broad, who is worth $6 billion, decided that public schools should be privatized and established a school for administrators to promote his ideology.
In Oakland, the first state trustee was a Broad Academy graduate named Randy Ward and three more of the next 6 superintendents who followed Ward were also Broad trained. Oakland suffered nine superintendents in 13 years.
In Inglewood, one trustee was a charter school founder who was concurrently serving as a board member of the charter school and the last two superintendents were Broad trained. Inglewood received six state appointed trustees in six years.
How much longer before large school districts like San Diego and Los Angeles – with 25 percent or more of their students in privatized schools – are forced into bankruptcy and taken over by the state? Both districts are currently running massive deficits caused primarily by charter school privatization and unfair special education costs.