Los Angeles Shows Lack of Civic Engagement

There are times when, much as I love my adopted city of Los Angeles, I can only shake my head and think, “This couldn’t happen in a real city.” By real, I don’t mean to be measuring tinsel content, but civic engagement. People don’t pay attention to politics here the way they do in other cities, the media doesn’t cover it the same way (don’t even get me started on that), and the result is that politicians get away with murder. Or worse.

Watts is a place that most people who don’t live in don’t set foot in. The closest we ever come is riding the freeway over it. Once upon a time there were famous riots there, but now it’s just poor and gang infested. Middle school kids who don’t join gangs get beat up and are afraid to tell anyone; for protection, kids join gangs that require girls to subject themselves to gang rape as part of their initiation process. The graduation rate at the local high school, one of the absolute worst in Los Angeles, is 3 percent.

So when the most successful charter school group in Los Angeles approached community leaders with the idea of essentially taking over that high school, and replacing it with eight new, smaller charter schools, there was overwhelming interest and support. Why wouldn’t there be? I serve on the Board of Directors of Green Dot Public Schools, which operates 10 charter schools in similar areas, with very different results.

At Green Dot Schools, the average graduation rate is 80 percent. In our first two schools with high school graduating classes, both in difficult areas of town, 79 percent and 62 percent of the graduates, respectively, are attending four-year accredited colleges and universities.

On statewide achievement tests, Green Dot students average 111 points higher than Los Angeles Unified students; meanwhile, test scores for high school students in Los Angeles dropped by more than 10 percent this year.

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?

Certainly not the three members of the Board who depend almost exclusively on the United Teachers of Los Angeles for campaign support.

With one member of the Board recused because he actually works for Green Dot, the remaining six members divided evenly last week, between those who voted to follow the law and provide better schools for kids, and those who decided to ignore the law and protect the local union. The split vote meant no charters.

In the last election cycle, two of the three members who voted against the charters received, between them, a million dollars from the teachers union, and virtually nothing from anyone else. How do you spell grateful? The third vote was from a member who has received similar support in her past campaigns.

All three, of course, denied that their votes had anything to do with their ties to the teachers.

They were looking for more specifics about the reform plan, an aide to one said.

They had questions about Green Dot’s performance, another said.

Green Dot schools are run based on Six Tenets, detailed on the website, www.greendot.org: small schools, high expectations, local control, parental involvement, getting dollars into classrooms and keeping schools open late. The results, also detailed on the Web site, speak for themselves.

But the teachers aren’t member of the Los Angeles teachers union. NO, it’s not about busting unions: the teachers have their own school-based union, and are members of the California Teachers Association, the statewide union. But they decide the rules for themselves, at the individual school, rather than paying their dues to the big city union and taking their orders from them. They’re accountable for what happens at their school, and they actually have some measure of control to shape it. Imagine that.

Not in Los Angeles. Not when it means that much less in union dues for the entrenched union.

Now I’m sure things like this happen in other cities. But somebody would be screaming bloody murder.

Or at least I’d like to think they would.

Headlines would blare. Heads would roll. It would be more than a one-day story on an inside page.

"It's really disappointing that we keep talking about wanting to do what's best for children first, when without a doubt that vote was about a teachers' union and three board members not having the backbone to stand up and do the right thing for kids over their ties to the union," the School Board member from Watts said after the vote.

But it isn’t just the three board members without backbone who are the problem. It’s the rest of us who let them get away with it.

Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot, has voted to appeal the denial of the charters to the county, and to open at least two previously approved schools in the Watts area. One of the three board members who voted against the charters is locked in a runoff election next month that is shaping up as a referendum on the teachers union versus the Mayor’s commitment to reform. Or at least that’s what it should be a referendum about, if anybody pays attention.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was previously Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and was the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System,” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for foxnews.com.

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