Screen shot 2013-06-01 at 11.34.13 PMVenice High School (VHS) has been on our beach radar since early spring when a “pilot” school was discovered slated for co-location on campus. The trouble was that no one in the community – not teachers, not students, not parents — had heard anything about the proposal in advance of a week prior to its sudden scheduled vote into existence by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school board.

More unfitting than the precipitous and mysterious genesis of this entity, it never was a legitimate construct. A “pilot” school is intended, by agreement between LAUSD and the teacher’s union, UTLA, to permit faculty flexibility on its own campus to address problems located there, at that self-same campus. A pilot school never was to be a vehicle for creating and installing a brand new educational entity on existing LAUSD real estate. No teacher at VHS ever had any input into this misnamed “pilot” school. And so by any other name, the proposal was still nothing more than a startup school. And it was intended to muscle our venerable VHS faculty and facilities into non-existence through “co-location”.

It turns out this land grab was backed by none other than Steve Barr lately of Green Dot charter schools, more recently of its parent entity, Future Is Now. In the aftermath of blocking his treachery in part through a petition that garnered nearly 1000 signatures in 48 hours, much bad behavior was exhibited by our superintendent, including destruction of private property and public yelling at parents, as well as maneuvers that placed LAUSD in front of a court of law. Ultimately space at VHS was ordered offered to a quasi-public charter concern, independent of LAUSD that is highly place-specific in its mission. Westchester Secondary Charter School (WSCS) is presently choosing between situating at VHS, far from their Westchester real estate roots, or instead in a church basement among “their” Westchester demographic.

Meanwhile, as it looks increasingly like VHS may not suffer co-location this year, the pilot-school-that-isn’t has ramped up their campaign to insinuate themselves at VHS despite public opprobrium. One online local “hometown” website has hosted the would-be Trojan horse by providing a forum for public grousing about the school. Several aspects of these posts lend suspicion to their validity, though there is little doubt that some complaints contain a kernel of truth. Until more honesty and light is shed publicly on the doings at VHS – both good and bad – our school will remain vulnerable to encroachment by outside groups with their own private agendas.

All this skirmishing is but a scuffle on the national stage of corporate privatization of our public trust, our public schools. For the public to retain input in our public schools, it is critical that every single member of the local Venice-Mar Vista Community pay attention to the tactics of the duplicitously named ‘Education Reform’ movement. It is a neoliberal wolf in sheep’s clothing threatening the demise of our 100-year-old local High School. Beyond VHS this attack on our democracy is well-chronicled on the blog of former Assistant Secretary of Education, Dr. Diane Ravitch. Read more about how the national issue plays out specifically here at VHS on this local blog chronicling educational politics here in Los Angeles.

All this politicking, as it happens, is suffusing our own little local, neighborhood, home-town high school, VHS, because as the flagship school on the westside of Los Angeles, it is currently center stage in a national spotlight of Education Reform. Known snarkily as “Education Rheeform” in honor of one of the former rallying mavens of this movement, Michelle Rhee, disgraced chancellor of the Washington, DC school system, Education Reform is quite the society-shaking revolutionary concept, and you should get to know about it. Millions of dollars flowed across the country and into our local school board elections this past spring. Los Angeles is the second-largest school district in the U.S., hosting the largest concentration of charter schools anywhere on the planet … right here on our very own westside. Charter-partisan ideologues are unwilling to jeopardize the march of charter school expansion.

The revolution in question is that of the ongoing unceasing effort of the 1% to ream every last dime from the 99%. In this instance the field of play is your child’s education. Public education, that is, and it is no inconsequential element of the revolution that this may no longer be the type of education that your child receives.

Not very long ago there were few “choices” for school; we all attended our local public school that housed a vast panoply of educational programs and tracks and styles under its one roof. Because of its diversity of offerings and ability to serve one and all, special and specialized needs notwithstanding, this sort of school was termed “comprehensive”. And this is the sort of school that Venice High School epitomized, in movies and in real life and in the memory of the members of our community as well. There were gaggles of kids with different learning- and life-styles and lots and lots of teachers and classes to serve them all: rich, poor, smart, slow, challenged and challenging. Sports were the rallying field but fine arts and industrial arts and even adult education all played into the mix.

Then along came the development of the private educational sector, an economic potential that has grown in current estimates to be approaching 10% of GDP. Suddenly this backwater of public utility known as Education began to be understood as a financial growth opportunity of fabulous dimensions. This has been the revolution of more than a dozen years in coming. What you thought was the shared resource for schooling all the young members of our society collectively, in a canon of truths and facts and mores we all decided was what constituted the raising of an “educated” person, is now a splintered battlefield of parsed investment ventures, a field scattered with hundreds, possibly more than a thousand specialized and depauperized smaller schools. These are in large numbers funded directly and indirectly by the titans of corporate bioinformation technology: Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, The Walton (Walmart) Family Foundation. The list includes a very long roster of neoliberals, biotech titans and other investors who stand to gain personally, professionally or ideologically from wide-spread privatization of the formerly public educational sector.

VHS is one of the few remaining comprehensive schools of this old style, but all is not well therein. With the opening of hundreds of quasi-public ‘independent’ and ‘affiliated’ charter schools on the westside in the past decade, enrollment in VHS has declined 32% from a high of 3043 in 2004 to 2074 in 2012 (Figure 1; data from California Department of Education)VHS enrollment by grade 2002-12. Just one is plotted here for enrollment trends in comparison with VHS (Figure 2):VHS-AVCS enrollment 2002-12

Note well that the actual relationship of enrollment between these two schools is unknown. Just because enrollment might drop by, say, 10 at VHS does not mean those 10 pupils are known to have matriculated instead at the private charter school noted in this particular graph.

It is this drop in enrollment that left VHS vulnerable this year to what is termed “co-location”, the literal situating of another school right onto the very campus itself of an “under-enrolled” school. Via proposition 39, a law passed in 2000 primarily to lower the supermajority requirement that was hobbling public school funding measures, it is now legally required of public schools to “offer” space to any charter school that asks for it from among “empty” classrooms. The definition of what constitutes an “empty” classroom is in itself problematic, as well as the fact that a comprehensive school is made up of far, far more than a collection of individual classrooms. Housed on campus are many shared and public spaces for administration, library, health services, intervention and counseling services, athletics and much, much more.

Nevertheless VHS, in being classified as “under-enrolled” became vulnerable to co-location by a charter school, which is a community of teachers generally not members of the LAUSD teacher’s union, UTLA. Perhaps to retain LAUSD control of the VHS campus, space was proposed to be given preemptively to a “pilot” school there. By definition a pilot school is created from within a school community among its teachers to facilitate change in their community. This change is articulated, approved, “piloted” in trial, evaluated and implemented among the broader community; it is an internal restructuring.

Therefore a “pilot” school designed by people from outside of the school community is a contradiction in terms. What was claimed to be a “pilot school offering” this past spring was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It would have placed a separate school right onto the VHS campus, designed to grow in size so as to cannibalize, if not eventually eclipse the school presently located there.

No teacher, administrator, parent or community member of VHS had anything to do with the orphan “pilot” school that LAUSD central administrators proposed should be “offered” space on VHS’ campus. Instead it turns out the individual teacher who envisioned this pilot-school-in-search-of-a-location was funded by Steve Barr. This gentleman is formerly of the not-for-profit Green Dot Charter Schools corporation that has opened so many charter schools in our neighborhood over this past decade (20 in LA County), arguably siphoning away students and resulting in the very “under-enrollment” that leaves VHS so vulnerable. Barr’s latest not-for-profit entity is called Future Is Now Schools and the “innovative” school they attempted to muscle onto the VHS campus is called the “Incubator School”.

Emplacement of the not-pilot school onto VHS’ campus was slated for approval by the LAUSD board, but upon hearing from a cadre of parents furious to have learned of this plan only at the very last moment, the board instead conditioned explicit location of the exogenous school on approval by the VHS school-based management committee. It was not granted. Since that time this pilot-school-that-isn’t has been presenting its case serially to every single public school on the westside hoping to find a locale that will agree to be “possessed”. They are still searching, planting public online communications sites with coached complaints and carping in professional journals about their mysterious and misunderstood movements on the westside.

Meanwhile there remain classrooms that are technically “empty” at VHS. A court-imposed deadline for “offering” space to charter schools passed without Superintendent Deasy making any such offering. Immediately after the offering deadline passed, the CA Charter School Association filed suit on behalf of Westchester Secondary Charter School (WSCS) for space in VHS. This was a costly development for LAUSD financially, politically and legally, and it was forced on the board by its own superintendent. He was completely cognizant of the WSCS’ desire for space close to their “home turf” of Westchester. While VHS remains far from eager for any such co-location, harming our school district and all the kids it serves, is not to anyone’s advantage.  The hired leader of our school district should not be working to undermine it.

Presumably Dr. Deasy’s maneuver can be understood politically but it is hard for citizens not privy to the internal workings of LAUSD to understand the complicated political gyrations of such massive entities. From here the situation seems contrary to the best interests of the public school system, if not any of the individual schools involved. Power struggles among individuals and entities in the LAUSD system best seem to explain this confusing situation. Casualties are – of course – our kids, our school, and the institution of public education itself.

As things stand now, WSCS is weighing the relative demerits of location and facilities in terms of its own needs. From VHS’ perspective, it would be preferable for WSCS to reject the space that the courts forced LAUSD to offer it at VHS. The reasons for despising a co-location are numerous. Ultimately the physical juxtaposition makes vivid one of the unintended consequences of Education Reform: searingly sharp self-segregation, as illustrated by this co-location at an elementary school somewhere in Los Angeles (Figure 3)charter have-havenots pixellated. It is bad enough to codify a charter school system of have and have-nots, which is inherently a disaggregated collection of filtered schools where some are far better off than others, and none is available to all. It will be unpleasant in the extreme to lose critical space and resources to this charter school co-location at VHS if forced to next year. But at the same time it is clear that even if WSCS chooses to stay in its eponymous neighborhood, VHS remains vulnerable to co-location as long as its enrollment is low.

And therein lies the dilemma and the connection to the national stage of “Education Reform”. For decades the political Right has beaten a steady drone on the need for privatizing schools; they have championed the notion that our public schools are “failing” and hazarded the theory that it is our public school teachers who are responsible for this failure. They have manufactured “tests” of these claims that are in no way tied to either the issue at hand (what needs to be learned, what has been learned, who has learned it) or any underlying extenuating conditions (say, poverty). A system of stratified schools has devolved to the point where nearly all schools are so small and specialized as to lack any amenities beyond reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. Even those elements are reduced in effectiveness severely. Gone are fine arts or music or industrial arts or technical arts or even athletics from many schools. The resulting impoverishment of the educational experience is extreme. A school like Venice High with its rich history and comprehensive offerings of classes poses a real threat to this evolving system of divided, narrow specialization.

And indeed, budget strangulation year after year has resulted in these offerings steadily vanishing from VHS. If you are an alumni of our formerly excellent high school, you would be shocked to learn about the changes invisible from the outside; it is not the school you knew growing up. Programmatic violence in the recent past includes:  the demise of its formal music program, and most of its art and photography classes; closing of the Culinary Arts Academy and most if not all of the Industrial arts, including VHS auto, metal, wood and state-of-the-art printing shops; an award-winning robotics program that is now in jeopardy.  Families want to attend this comprehensive school, but between draining its curriculum and siphoning its students, the future prospects for Venice High School seem dire.

But because perception of want is such a critical component of pre-tagging a school for takeover, there is a keen interest in controlling the message of the actual educational experience at VHS. As resources have been withdrawn from our local schools, the experience of all our children has become meaner. Recently the local Ven-Mar online “hometown” website hosted a series of anonymous, “tell-all” smears, surrogately posted by the formerly quashed quasi-pilot-school. Because these enjoined expressions are not broadcast toward any authority who might affect change, it is doubtful improving anyone’s school experience is ultimately their goal. More likely these families’ testimonials are exploited to ‘control the message’ toward “softening the market for take-over”. The real aim here is to diminish the reputation and enrollment of our local public school so that it will be all the more easy to invoke either proposition 39 or worse, the brutality of a parent-trigger petition campaign. This is the tool of Steve Barr and his compatriot Ben Austin for wresting control of our public educational system from the hands of the public. Through campaigns of alleged intimidation, misrepresentation and a host of other fraudulent ploys, school control has been pitched into the hands of charter or quasi-charter schools exemplified by those run nearby under Mr. Barr. The tactic employed by the wayward “pilot” of facilitating gratuitous slander of public institutions and their officials belies any desire of theirs to co-locate peaceably.

But co-location with any public school was never an ultimate goal, this trajectory aims for severe stratification of educational opportunities society-wide. It matters that your child is not enrolled in your neighborhood public high school, but is instead attending a private school, whether next door or across town. This setup of district public schools and charter quasi-public schools is fleshed out at the expensive-end with private school offerings of all stripes and colors as well. If you do not play into the public school system with your own kin, you contribute to a system of segregated and stratified schooling. It cannot get better until we all choose to return to a system of unified schooling.

So. We at VHS are hoping that WSCS will turn us down and stay away. But even if they do, the forces that threaten our well-being are very much active within and without VHS. Every time a family chooses not to attend VHS, it matters. Every time a political sleight of hand constitutes a new school in our neighborhood, it matters. Every time another program or another teacher is cut from the budget at VHS, it matters. Every time an anonymous posting vilifies our local public schools without recourse for mitigation it matters.

We are desperate for community help at VHS. Not in volunteering, which is nonetheless needed. But in lending us your children to educate. To coin a phrase: If you leave it, it will fall apart. Our school is but a shadow of itself when its core neighborhood support is absent. Please, come see our programs and facilities for yourself. Urge your child and your neighbor’s to attend their local public school. Get involved with the programs there that need your help. And learn more about this national scourge of Education Reform that is a misnomer for corporate privatization of our public school system. It matters and it is at your doorstep.