Local Accountability and Astroturf: Local Control without the Local Control
How can we banish No Child Left Behind’s top-down and narrow paradigm? Local control has been a bedrock principle of public schooling in America since its inception. NCLB sent us in the opposite direction of this traditional notion. A return to a traditional locally based educational policy can be again realized via a multiple measures approach to accountability that is democratically decided on the community level. See all posts on Community-Based Accountability here.
One of the biggest dangers to Community-Based Accountability, and Community-Based Reform in general is astroturfing (See for example Parent trigger laws: Wolves in sheep’s clothing and astroturfing). Robert D. Skeels talks about the issue in the context of the new implementation of Local Accountability in California. For Community-Based Accountability to work in California and the national context we will have to address this stealth hegemony.
Shortly after my brief article on the recent United Way astroturf episode ran, my friend Anthony Cody reached out regarding how Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig had done some work in the past on proposing a Community Based Accountability framework that seemingly informed California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF)—at least in part. He asked me to send my thoughts on what that looked like on the ground in Los Angeles. He also sent me links to Vasquez-Heilig’s posts Accountability: Are you ready for a new idea? and D.C. are you listening?: A New Local, Community-Based Approach for Accountability. I responded, and was then asked if it was okay to publish my commentary. I requested that I be given a chance to clean the comments up. I decided that rather than make revisions, I would instead annotate my original response.
First I want to say that I support the idea of a Community Based Accountability framework in principle. The micromanaging of everything from curricula all the way to assessments by both the Bush and Obama administrations has been astonishing, and has failed students in every regard. I believe that community based accountability could work in cities where genuine community and parent engagement is present. In Los Angeles we have a very different reality. I was reminded yesterday of the seemingly inexhaustible resources the neoliberal corporate education reformers have while covering an event contrived by the Walton Family Foundation funded Parent Revolution to push their candidates for Los Angeles Unified School Board and State Superintendent of Instruction. We have a local superintendent in John Deasy who is simultaneously a former Gates Foundation executive and a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy. Deasy was essentially placed in power by Eli Broad—there was no hiring or veting process prior to his coronation. Broad and Gates also fund the United Way of Greater Los Angeles to the tune of millions of dollars, as they do with many of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC) in our city. Between their limitless finances, direct connection with the superintendent, financial ties with opportunistic politicians, and uncritical coverage in the corporate media, the NPIC are able to carry out advocating for the Broad/Gates/Walton agenda with negligible opposition.
Annotated original comments
In theory and principle, LCFF sounds like a great idea. In practice, there has been—and will be—no authentic community input as to how the funds are spent. Deasy made a mistake in the very beginning and had the district run an online poll for how the funds were to be spent. When he saw that adult education and early education topped the list, he pressed the reset button and brought in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC) to run the process. The NPIC don’t do parent or community engagement, they do control.
When we first heard of LCFF many of us had trepidation. Governor Brown was counterposing it to categorical funding, which protected both some of our most vulnerable students (e.g. Special Needs Children and English Language Learners), and programs like Adult Education—which is vital to our impoverished and immigrant communities. We also saw that early drafts of LCFF were going to bolster funding to the lucrative charter school industry, which wasn’t surprising given that Brown is in the charter school business himself. In 2012 we saw what happens to programs when they weren’t protected by categorical funding. As soon as Adult Education had been temporarily removed from categorical funding, Deasy callously tried to close down the entire program.
As I noted in my original comments, the District (i.e. Deasy) polled the community for its priorities and didn’t like the results. That process, and LCFF in general, is somewhat of a “pick your poison” setup from the beginning anyway. We are presented with a list of budget priorities that are falsely set in competition with each other. We shouldn’t have to choose between whether we want more resources for English Language Learners English Language Learner versus arts programs, and so forth. LCFF allows Governor Brown and his fellow politicians off the hook for not fully funding education by letting them say that “the community chose” to eschew a school nurse in lieu of more test preparation computers, etc.” Again, we shouldn’t have to make choices between say counselors versus nurses, or nurses versus arts, and even that series of false dichotomies assumes that the community would be making those decision in the first place. Dr. Cynthia Liu’s timely Local Control Funding Formula Accountability Councils — Did You Get the Memo? exposed how politics in Los Angeles works. Deasy’s invitations to create Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP) were made exclusively for and through the NPIC. Their carefully staged “demonstration” in front of the district was coordinated between Deasy and the foundations he and the NPIC have in common.I noticed that in the article on Professor Vasquez Heilig’s site the person listed some of the NPIC “ACLU, Public Advocates, Children Now, Families in Schools, the Advancement Project, EdTrust-West, Children’s Defense Fund, CADRE and Californians for Justice.” Here in Los Angeles the ACLU serves as one of the legal arms of the Broad managed NPICs. Of the others I can attest that Families in Schools, EdTrust-West, and Children’s Defense Fund are some of the most anti-public education outfits around. Families in Schools was the biggest advocate for NCLB in Los Angeles, and if you notice, many of my pieces over the years have dealt with them and their long-time director, reactionary Maria Casillas.
Probably my most extensive post on the Families in Schools NPIC was written in 2011. A perfect demonstration of the synergy between Deasy and the NPIC is found in Families in Schools’ reactionary Maria Casillas, who has been hired by Deasy twice: first to lead astroturf parent “engagement,” and again recently to fill the void left by the disgraced Jaime Aquino of the Pearson PLC iPad scandal fame. EdTrust-West is led by the unabashed teacher hating Arun Ramanathan, whose ideas of “equity” include channeling the late Howard Jarvis—the fringe-right author of Proposition 13—the root cause of all of California’s education budget shortfalls. Children’s Defense Fund is led by arch-reactionary Jonah Edelman, whose claim to infamy is his proud union busting tirade captured on film at an Aspen Institute event in which he detailed his work with hedge fund managers and large foundations to destroy the Chicago Public Schools system. Hence my real concerns when reading Debra Watkins’ response to Vasquez Heilig saying “I serve on a team comprised of groups.” Those groups Watkins discusses do not represent local communities, rather they are the voice of the ruling class plutocrats who fund them through their foundations.This recent piece on how Los Angeles NPIC control the entire narrative over LCFF funding, really doesn’t begin to address how much power they have. The truth is, there is no group with the funding that can provide any kind of counter narrative. Our local press talks about these groups like they are authentic community voices. The reality is that they are the voice of the foundations that fund them. Deasy has it made. All of his LCFF priorities are “coincidently” the same as the NPICs, and the editorial staff at all the local media. Point out the foundations that are the common thread in all of this, and you’re immediately labeled a conspiracy theorist. The ever eloquent Joanne Barkan provides the best response to the conspiracy theory accusations:
By definition conspiracies are secret and illegal. The ed-reform movement isn’t a conspiracy. When people or organizations work together politically in a democracy, it’s a coalition or movement. This is true even when—as is the case with the ed-reform movement—huge amounts of money are being spent by mega-foundations and private meetings take place.
I would further add to Barkin’s statement that the correct term for ruling class consensus to openly privatize education in order to meet a range of their goals is policy, not conspiracy. The use of the NPIC to further our rulers’ agenda’s is nothing new either; the watershed book, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, is nearly a decade old, and the issues it discusses began at least a half-century before its publication. The truth about the plutocratic oligarchy we live under is now so conspicuous, that even the mainstream corporate media have began discussing it. In Los Angeles this isn’t Watkins’ “messy” “democracy”, but instead a one sided corporate narrative in which community control is just a banal phrase.
There are no grassroots parent or community groups that can compete with the NPIC in terms of getting their voices heard on LCFF’s LCAPs. Authentic groups like Coalition for Educational Justice comprise a few dozen members and have minuscule budgets. The only large organizations that traditionally speak for working class people—the labor movement—are missing in action, or worse. Unions like the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and Service Employees International Union Local 99 are completely complicit in the school privatization project. They have worked closely with the NPIC to push for privately managed charters, discredited value added evaluations, and a host of other neoliberal corporate education reforms. Over the past decade they have consistently endorsed and supported the same school board candidates that have been financed by Eli Broad, Philip Anschutz, Rupert Murdoch, and Mike Bloomberg’s Coalition for School Reform. Worse still, their leadership openly supports Deasy. The only union not under the sway of these groups is United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). UTLA has been entirely ineffective combatting neoliberalism due to bitter sectarian infighting—a situation that doesn’t look like it will change any time soon.
If we had vibrant social movements, respect for special needs children, and English language learners, etc., LCFF might have been a good idea. Instead, we’re seeing the funds being used according to foundation agendas, the same foundations that control the Department of Education in DC. At the end of the day LCFF will be used to further deprive those already marginalized students of their civil rights. It’s not unlike when the South refused to desegregate and needed federal intervention. Other than a handful of us that write on these issues, there is no organized dissent. Again, how do you compete with the United Way, its backers, and all the groups it funds?
All I can speak for is Los Angeles. Here the same entities that dictate national education policy hold sway over our entire school district. With categorical funding all but gone, our concerns that the safety net for programs crucial to our communities are more than legitimate. The agenda and priorities of the groups controlling the LCAP process are not those of working class people. We see those corporate priorities in Deasy’s choice to line Pearson PLC’s pockets with bond money that was supposed to repair our crumbling schools. In the absence of genuine struggle, there’s little hope that the community will ever be heard.
Robert D. Skeels
“Most Americans say they support equal funding for public schools, but affluent and powerful citizens often oppose efforts to correct funding inequities. This opposition may reflect ignorance about funding differences, unthinking acceptance of traditional methods for funding education, and selfish desires to keep personal taxes low.” — Bruce J. Biddle and David C. Berliner
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p.s. Check out my “TED-style” talk about Community-Based Accountability on PBS in the post New Community-Based Approach to Accountability Featured on PBS-TV EdTalk