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September, 2005

Takeover Vultures Stalk L.A.'s Jefferson High – A Nationwide Problem

By Steve Teixeira

LOS ANGELES — L.A.’s Jefferson High suffers problems seen in schools across America. Test scores lag far behind schools in wealthy areas. Ancient heat and cooling systems don’t work. Students are crammed into rooms without enough seats. Some students take out their frustrations in violence against each other.

A government that cared about low-income neighborhoods would have fixed things long ago. Instead, the school's problems have become an excuse for outsiders to make money at their expense. In August, Steve Barr swooped down to declare the school dead and pick at its bones like a vulture at a car wreck.

Barr said the solution to Jefferson’s woes was to let his company, Green Dot Public Schools, tear it up into eight small “charter schools.” This isn’t just about one school, or one company. It’s a major battle in a national war of takeover which the investor class is waging against society. They started by privatizing public jobs, hospitals, and benefits like Social Security. Our kids’ schools are next.

Charter school companies get money from the school system to run public schools, usually the ones with the most problems. They get to waive some of the rights parents and teachers have at the other public schools – really, they’re privately-owned places run with the public’s money. But there’s even more money at stake. Many charter schools are part of redevelopment schemes by politicians and developers to make money by moving out the poor.

Though redevelopment projects use tax money, the government only requires that one out of five new housing units be priced for working class people. They end up being “housing projects for the wealthy.” But wealthy condo buyers won’t send their kids to the failing schools forced onto the downtown poor. So, the elite are promoting small charter schools because it helps sell their projects.

Green Dot has board members who are national experts at takeovers of public schools. Ana Tilton helps NewSchools Venture Fund finance charter schools, and was responsible for 50 schools run by Edison Schools in seven states. Kevin Hall is a founder of Chancellor Beacon Academies, and chief operating officer for the Broad Foundation (whose founder is billionaire Eli Broad, a developer bankrolling charter schools across the country).

Green Dot’s vultures know they must have other board members that working class voters might trust. Oscar De La Hoya is a famous boxer from East LA. Susan Estrich managed the 1988 Dukakis presidential campaign. Steve Barr was finance chairman of the Democratic Party, and a founder of Rock-the-Vote. Glenn Dryfoos works for Telemundo, the number two Spanish TV network in America.

No wonder that some parents and community leaders were fooled into supporting the takeover! Noreen McClendon, director of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, told the L.A. Times, “Steve Barr's schools have a track record.” Yet a review of state data shows that Green Dot's Animo Leadership High in Inglewood had 10th grade math scores as terrible as Jefferson’s – 99 percent of their students did not get a proficiency rating. Some record!

Why Jefferson?

The media focused on Jefferson’s troubles in May, after three days of fights among black and latino students. Someone put a flyer into the streets threatening to kill African Americans on Cinco de Mayo, and 51,000 kids were absent across L.A. It's still unclear if the flyer came from students, professional criminals using “Raza Pride” as a trick to control drug markets, or rogue police inciting gang conflict. What is clear is that it cost L.A. schools $600,000, since funding is based on attendance.

School officials, politicians, and the media quickly blamed it all on gang kids. But no one mentioned that Steve Bachrach taught classes of 57 students, with only 38 chairs. Or that Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project reported in March that Jefferson graduated less than a third of students on time, and only 12 percent finished college prep courses.

Steve Barr and his flock knew that serious people wanted better solutions than expelling some more gangsters. Green Dot seized this opportunity to announce its offer to take over Jefferson, and began gathering signatures of parents desperate enough to give it to them. Just like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Barr used the growing social crisis to come in from outside of politics as usual, and grab power and money for himself.

However, the teachers’ union contract prevents some of the control Barr seeks. He tried offering higher pay if the union played ball, but the United Teachers of L.A.’s (UTLA) new leaders have promised to resist any schemes that privatize a few schools while ignoring the rest. “Charter schools are just private schools in a different suit,” asserts UTLA President A.J. Duffy.

Duffy’s right. We need a different solution than giving our schools to the same people who house the wealthy while homelessness spreads. UTLA is fighting them, refusing to sell out the community for a little higher pay.

Will you join the struggle? Can your union, club, or neighborhood help defend Jefferson or other schools from takeover? Can you help research or write to us about the vultures in your city who hide behind charter schools, behind the redevelopment scams?

Without these efforts merging into a mighty movement to save public education, more Barrs and Schwarzeneggers will manipulate people's despair, and grab political power. Unwilling to share the wealth necessary for meeting people's needs, their “solutions” will mean more expulsions, more school police, and more dropouts. We are witnessing the birthing of a new form of American fascism, which can only be avoided by insisting that the wealth of society be used to benefit all the people.

Steve Teixeira directs the Student Support Program at Cal State L.A., and is a leader in the Academic Professionals of California union.

This article originated in the People's Tribune
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