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Sunday, February 05, 2012

Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, and Monica Garcia’s Open Enrollment Resolution

(Originally posted on January 26, 2012, as part of Leadership for Educational Equity's "Teach for America Alumni of Los Angeles" blog: http://blog.educationalequity.org/blog/story/2012/1/26/231056/341).

Despite the fact that the Regular Board Meeting scheduled for January 24, 2012 was cancelled, I wanted to hold off on discussing the “Resolution to Examine Increasing Choice and Removing Boundaries,” brought before LAUSD and the public by Board President Monica Garcia, during the January 17, 2012 Special Board Meeting, until after President Barack Obama’s third State of the Union (SOTU) address. I wanted to see what elements from the address were most relevant to the discussions we’re having at LEE about reform in Los Angeles, throughout California, and across the US. I am going to address the points raised in the SOTU, and then review the school choice resolution. LAUSD’s move toward open enrollment is in many ways prompted by LAUSD’s continuing budget shortfalls. The hope is that removing attendance boundaries will bring up average daily attendance (ADA) and counter current budget shortfalls and future deficits, as enrollment in other school choice areas has doubled. However, my discussion will largely focus on the philosophical debate to come, as opposed to the financial one.


Unsurprisingly, President Obama did not raise the difficulties of implementing system wide reforms throughout (pre-K through 16) public education. However, the President used the SOTU to make an unprecedented proposal to make dropping out of high school illegal before the age of 18. President Obama has, thankfully, done more than his predecessor to focus attention on underperforming high schools. As signed into law under George W. Bush, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) put most of its emphasis on fourth and eighth grade test scores in just two subjects, reading and math. Under Barack Obama, NCLB’s school turnaround programs include support for “dropout factories” –a.k.a., high schools whose graduation rate is less than 60 percent. Under the direction of Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, President Obama’s administration has focused on fostering management reform in these schools, by turning them over to charter operators, or replacing their principals and/or teaching staffs. We live in an environment where Common Core Standards dominate discussions of curriculum, yet neither Secretary Duncan, nor President Obama have entered into a debate of how to make school relevant to students through new curriculums, Linked Learning, project based learning, etc.

Career and technical education (CTE) can coexist with a college-preparatory curriculum for all students. It is difficult to breach the subject of viable options for students who are unlikely to graduate college, but it is crucial to engage in the conversation when working to improve existing education policy. According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, (HGSE) about a third of the American jobs created between now and 2018 will require an occupational certificate, but not a four-year college degree. President Obama is overwhelmingly familiar with HGSE’s findings and concurrent research regarding expanding job sector-specific training, which is why he used the SOTU to advocate turning community colleges into “community career centers.” The truth is, sadly, that relying on community colleges alone to handle this country’s CTE training needs is impractical. High schools must also offer CTE program options capable of preparing students for the job market. The caveat, the fundamentally non-negotiable one, is that students who enter the job market from high school cannot be precluded from the matriculation requirements for an accredited four-year college. We need college and career options for all, not the status quo. Remediation must be the exception, not the rule.

Although he never mentioned NCLB by name, or called on Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), in whole or part, President Obama lit the fire under institutions of higher education to lower costs and remove obstacles to on time or early graduation. He also demanded continuous universally low interest rates on student loans, extend tax credits, stated that institutions of higher education unwilling to cap or lower their tuition bills would lose federal money, and reintroduced the need for immediate legislation to tackle the intersection of immigration and education policy. While he did not take on “school readiness,” or any other aspect of Race to the Top’s Early Learning Challenge, President Obama did cover a lot of ground, and his emphases of increasing standards for teaching and learning, as well as granting schools the flexibility to allow teachers to be creative and passionate, provide the perfect segue for discussing Board President Garcia’s push for district wide open enrollment in LAUSD.


On Monday, January 16, 2012, the L.A. Times Op-Ed page ran the following:

“What would happen… if L.A. Unified simply eliminated enrollment boundaries, so that students who lived in any part of the district had equal claim to classroom seats in any school anywhere in the district?

The practical answer is: chaos. It's unclear how the most popular schools in the most-sought-after neighborhoods would choose among the many students who would no doubt apply for admission. Furthermore, in an area as sprawling as Los Angeles, getting students to their chosen schools could be a nightmare. Bus transportation would make little sense with students from any given area headed every which way, and even if parents had the time and resources to drive their children to school — which many don't — do we really want to put tens of thousands of additional cars on our crowded roads each morning and evening? Parents who pay big mortgages to live near high-performing schools would, of course, be outraged, and many would probably leave the district if their children weren't admitted to a school nearby, which would in turn bleed the district of more enrollment and more money that it can't afford to lose…

For all the devils in the details, a full debate on open enrollment would provide a new way of looking at educational inequities, and would lend new urgency to the issue. If students had endless options for attending school, racial imbalances in enrollment would begin to even out, without the need for race-based admissions. So would private donations; it's unlikely that one school would be awash in parent-funded enrichment programs while another couldn't afford a computer for a classroom. Teachers who in the past might have fled inner-city schools for the suburbs would have less reason to transfer. Parents who wouldn't dream of sending their children to a rundown school in South Los Angeles might be forced to admit that it's no more acceptable for other children to have to attend that school.

The classic response to complaints about educational inequities has been that the district has to work harder on providing top-quality neighborhood schools for low-income students. That theory, nice as it sounds, has been as fraught with practical barriers as the idea of open enrollment is. It has been too easy for parents to ignore bad public schools when their children don't have to attend them, and too hard for parents to find good public schools when their income level doesn't buy them housing in more affluent neighborhoods. [Board President, Monica] Garcia's resolution may not solve these problems, but with luck it might open up an overdue discussion across L.A. Unified. Good for her, for raising her head above the fray and thinking big.”


Board President Garcia’s proposal to bring open enrollment to every corner of LAUSD arrives at the same time that the California State Senate’s SB 172 explores a similar idea. LAUSD’s possible move toward district wide open enrollment is akin to a decision to adopt a universal voucher system. It’s a sweeping change, making one like State Senator Gloria Romero’s California Open Enrollment Act, or Board Member Yolie Flores-Aguilar’s Public School Choice Resolution, seem incremental. Those who believe an unregulated free market in public education is a bad idea, emphasize that school choice (via vouchers or open enrollment) results in the worsening of already underfunded, as well as human and material resource deprived, inner city schools, and thus, deny equality of opportunity to the students who attend them. In sharp contrast, stand those who question if we can justify allowing middle and upper class parents the freedom to choose the best possible schooling option for their children without extending the same option to those without equivalent residential mobility and/or economic means. The argument, that school choice results in “skimming,” leaving the students left behind—those without effective adult advocates in their lives—in unsafe, underperforming schools. This leads to a counter argument that these are precisely the schools most in need of reconstitution, turnover to charter operators, some other kind of radical transformation, or to be shut down altogether. School choice has an egalitarian rationale. After all, current attendance boundaries are not any less Gerrymandered than School Board, State Assembly, State Senate, Congressional, or any other essentially arbitrary lines drawn on a map whose only purpose is to create equally populated parcels of land. There are people who live in front of a campus that is not considered their neighborhood-school because of the way attendance boundaries are currently drawn. And the creation of the Belmont Zone of Choice, the RFK Zone of Choice, and the Torres Zone of Choice have proven that the creation of Small Learning Centers, whether career themed academies or not, have provided high performing options for parents and students and accelerated the pace of change in places plagued by the inertia of historic failure. But turning enrollment into an unregulated marketplace is a win for freedom in a head-to-head match up with equity.

When I heard the rumor that open enrollment was being proposed, I immediately recalled the op-ed I read in the December 14, 2011 edition of the L.A. Times, “L.A. Unified’s grade-school game: Getting your child into the L.A. Unified elementary school of your choice involves a lot of planning, patience—and luck” (http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/14/opinion/la-oe-komaiko-school-20111214). Outside observers who are cynical believe that open enrollment won’t actually cause anything to change. After all, the L.A. Times already released its own version of value-added ranking of teachers, (http://projects.latimes.com/value-added/) as well as standardized test, graduation rate, and other snapshot data ranking of schools (http://projects.latimes.com/schools/). These have been readily used by parents who are prepared to relocate, enter charter lotteries, etc. based on their knowledge of existing school choice options, and ability to adopt the sense of entitlement required to take on the choppy seas of the education system. Once armed with belief that a child’s educational future is tied to what kind of school he/she attends, and not just the amount of love, support, and attention his/her parents are able to offer, and privileged enough to enjoy internet access, the information provided by the L.A. Times, and available on sites like http://www.hopechangechoices.org/ and http://www.greatschools.org, make it possible for parents to seek out options beyond the limited ones that they are usually provided. From the cynic’s point of view, everyone with the ability to escape LAUSD, or game the system in order to get into a high achieving magnet or similarly exceptional school, has already done so. And those who took whatever they were offered before will do so again.

One of the most frustrating things when it comes to any discussion of school choice is dealing with those who are unable to acknowledge or comprehend the difference between a theoretical right and its realistic real world application. For instance, as I write these words, I inhabit a world where Newt Gingrich is surging in polls taken of Florida Republicans expected to take part in that state’s upcoming primary. His success is attributed to the aggressive, unapologetic campaign rhetoric that propelled him to victory in South Carolina’s open primary. Rick Santorum won the Republican Iowa caucus. Mitt Romney won the Republican primary in New Hampshire. But Gingrich is considered to be the one with the momentum because during a televised debate he dismissed reporter Juan Williams’ concern that saying things like poor black children should be hired to work as janitors in their schools, and he would accept an invitation to speak before the NAACP so he can tell them that they shouldn’t be satisfied with the food stamps they receive from Barack Obama. Despite the ten thousand things I am moved to say in response to these statements, I am left to wonder if these are things Gingrich truly believes. He claims poor black children suffer because they don’t witness their parents working hard, and therefore they must learn the value of an honest day’s work from manual labor. But why don’t all children who don’t see their parents working for a regular paycheck suffer? Should moms and dads who voluntarily stay at home, put their children to work scrubbing toilets as well for fear of how they might end up? He omits those who choose to stay at home, because his contention that parents on food stamps have work-habit deprived kids, is rooted in the notion that poverty is a choice.

The idea that poverty is a choice is wrong. In April 2010, Harvard behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan and MIT’s Abhijit Banerjee published definitive findings regarding decision making and self-control. If a doughnut costs twenty-five cents, they wrote, then that “$0.25 will be far more costly to someone living on $2 a day than to someone living on $30 a day. In other words, the same self-control problem is more consequential for the poor.” What did the data they gathered and analyzed show? In addition to all the structural barriers that prevent even the most determined people from escaping poverty, the empirical evidence demonstrates that poverty reduces free will, making it even harder for the socioeconomically poor to escape their circumstances. The socioeconomically poor cannot make the same decisions as their middle or upper income peers. Regular access to goods like washing machines, dishwashers, laptop computers, broadband Internet access, and so on; regular access to services, such as online banking, automatic billpay, babysitting, food delivery, and so forth, do much more than simply free up time. The poor cannot avoid difficult tradeoff decisions about how they spend their time and money, but those with regular access to the above referenced goods and services can. In December 2010, Princeton economist Dean Spears published a series of experiments that each revealed how “poverty appears to have made economic decision-making more consuming of cognitive control for poorer people than for richer people.” The results of Spears’ experiments affirmed that if you have enough money, deciding whether to buy soap only requires considering whether you want it, not what you might have to give up to get it. Yet many of the tradeoff decisions the poor have to make every day are onerous and depressing: Whether to pay rent or buy food? Buy medicine or winter clothes? Pay for school materials or loan money to a relative? These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them exacts a mental cost. Globally renowned and multiple prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, in his best known tome, Development as Freedom, notes how an individual’s “freedom of agency” is “constrained by the social, political and economic opportunities” available to him or her. The scholars I’ve just cited have proven Sen to be right: Fewer options reduce freedom, and poverty doesn’t simply reduce freedom by constraining a given individual’s choices, but it alters the nature of freedom, writ large.

Gingrich is not the only politician who has been served well politically by the mistaken notion that poverty is a choice, especially when this argument is intertwined with the racism and racial resentment that permeate discussions of socioeconomic class, and the experiences of those on the margins with the economic, justice, and educational systems. His presidential campaign has produced several egregious statements, but no more than in the past (please see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/23/newt-gingrich-latinos-blacks-weath-gop-2012_n_1224939.html & http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-01-22/news/ct-met-trice-welfare-20120122_1_food-stamp-welfare-issue-cash-assistance/2). Nevertheless, the pertinent question here remains: How will open enrollment support LAUSD in meeting the goals laid out in Superintendent John Deasy’s Performance Meter, and President Obama’s SOTU address? In graduate school, I took courses intended to expose me to those practices that lead to success in the private sector, as well as ins and outs of program/project/policy design, management, and evaluation. Sadly, despite combing through literature reviews on best practices, and being voluntarily proselytized into the evangelical church of metrics, I cannot remember a single occasion in which I, or anyone I know in an MBA, MPA, MPP, or similar program was ever encouraged to re-imagine public policy and politics altogether. What if we could dream big and risk on what is possible, instead of focusing only on what is politically viable? After all, isn’t open enrollment in the age of the Parent Trigger, Parent Revolution, Parents As Equal Partners Advisory Board, Don’t Hold Us Back coalition, (led by United Way and Mayor’s office) NewTLA, Teachers for a New Unionism, Educators 4 Excellence, Communities for Teaching Excellence, Students First, the CA Education Policy Fund, Reed, et al v. LAUSD, et al, the US Department of Education’s Resolution of a Civil Rights Investigation of LAUSD concerning African American students and English Language Learners, Democrats for Education Reform, and so on and so forth, very different from open enrollment in a world without these players and circumstances?


Read More:

Initial reaction to Increasing Choice

Reflecting on LAUSD’s school choice Board motions

LA media reports the new Open Enrollment debate

LAUSD Board Changes Truancy Policies, Moves To Explore Lifting School Boundaries

Big Man on Campus – LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy on the latest challenges facing the district

LAUSD to Explore Lifting School Boundaries
The school board called on Superintendent John Deasy to draft a plan for allowing students to attend any school in the district.

L.A. Unified approves resolution to look at removing school enrollment boundaries

LAUSD orders study on erasing attendance boundaries

LAUSD without borders
A district without boundaries might be impractical. But such big-sky ideas are worth discussing.

LAUSD proposals aim to boost enrollment, erase attendance boundaries, raise cash

LA schools mull ways to boost district enrollment


LAUSD seeks to allow more enrollment choices

LAUSD to consider wider options for school choice

VIDEO: LAUSD Board Votes to Keep Students in District - Leila Feinstein reports
The Los Angeles Unified School District approved proposals Monday to keep kids in school and in the district.

LAUSD to consider wider options for school choice

Daily Breeze

89.3 KPCC


Fox LA

LA Times

LA Times

San Francisco Chronicle

LAUSD to Allow True Open Enrollment

Study: Student Enrollment in School Choice Options More Than Doubles