Democratic activist Steve Barr, founder of the Rock the Vote campaign, has dived into school reform in Los Angeles. Predictably, this has run him straight into the teeth of opposition from the education union. Barr has been busily kicking out those teeth.
Barr’s Green Dot is a group of charter schools with a strong record of accomplishment with very disadvantaged students. Public school teachers in Watts have been using a California law to secede from the dysfunctional Los Angeles district to join Green Dot as charter schools. The education establishment in the city, led by the education unions, has fought Barr every step of the way. But so far, Green Dot is winning.
Barr is no union buster; his schools have school-level associations. Barr’s take-no-prisoners style, however, includes no patience for urban schools that systematically fail kids. Barr will not tolerate tenure or other impediments to quality learning.
Barr makes it clear, in sometimes colorful language, that the purpose of state education spending is to educate children, not to provide job security to underperforming adults. He told LA Weekly, “Where are these … (expletive) teachers going to go? Where are these lifetime benefits going to go? What will happen to all of these groups protecting their interests and their jobs and their construction contracts? The political puzzle of this is really fascinating. But I have no doubt that within five years, you’re going to see our impact. And it’s going to be huge.”
Green Dot Schools in the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles have an average high school graduation rate of 80 percent. The first two Green Dot schools also had high percentages of graduates attending four-year accredited colleges and universities. The school model focuses on getting resources away from bureaucracy and into the classroom and an unflinching commitment to academic achievement.
Susan Estrich, manager of the 1988 Dukakis presidential campaign, blasted the Los Angeles school board for trying to stop Green Dot. Estrich describes the dire need:
The graduation rate at the local high school, one of the absolute worst in Los Angeles, is 3 percent…Green Dot was ready to go in Watts. It had the money to open the schools. It had the support of the community. It met all of the legal requirements for its charters to be approved. Indeed, the School Board staff advised the members that their only legal option was to approve the charters... But who cares about the rule of law when the teachers’ union is saying no?
TV personality Drew Carey recently filmed an internet program on Green Dot’s takeover of Locke High School in Watts for the Reason Foundation. Approximately 75 percent of 9th graders entering Locke do not graduate in four years, and less than five percent of Locke students go on to four-year colleges. In the 2003-2004 school year, there were three sex offenses, 17 robberies, 25 batteries, and 11 assaults with a deadly weapon at Locke. In the “no good deed goes unpunished” world of dysfunctional public school districts, the principal who tried to turn the school around was hounded by the unions.
Barr is not alone as a Democrat defying the prerogatives of the education unions. Democrats for Education Reform is a new group that is making a big splash. In 2007, the group held an event in which U.S. Representative James Clyburn (D-SC) stressed the importance of parental choice and innovation in education. Clyburn, the House Majority Whip and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, supports both charter schools and private school tuition tax credits for middle-class families.
At an earlier event held by the group, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. discussed “alarming dropout rates” and the dangers of a “monopoly” filled with failing schools. “We must explore options,” he said. “Every option for every American child so that every child might have the high-quality education they deserve in their lifetime…We need more competition in the system.”
Jackson Jr. mentioned that his parents sent him to the elite St. Albans Episcopal School in D.C. when he was a child. He said he plans to push the envelope to make Democrats approach education with a more open mind.
The big tent of education reform keeps getting bigger. The relationship between liberals and education reactionaries is under obvious strain. As Churchill once said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”