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League gives measured thumbs-up to school-reform elections

February 18, 2010 | 12:21 pm

Some adults voted twice and some third-graders voted once, but this month’s balloting on school reform plans in Los Angeles still proved a success, in the view of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles.

The verdict was in part the league endorsing its own efforts — it conducted the early February election at a cost of $50,000 by pulling together 400 volunteers.

The voting process is part of a school-reform plan under which groups inside and outside of the Los Angeles Unified School District are bidding for control of one or more of 30 campuses. Up for grabs are 12 low-performing schools and 18 new campuses that will be divided into 24 small schools.

Later Thursday, Supt. Ramon C. Cortines is expected to announce his recommendations for which groups should be running schools. He will most likely parcel out the spoils in a politically balanced way: Some schools will go to internal groups led by teachers, often working with district administrators; other schools will go to independently managed charter schools — most of which would hire non-district, non-union staff.

Cortines is supposed to base his choices on professional evaluations, his own experience and judgment, and the just-completed elections.

In those elections, teachers — with substantial support from United Teachers Los Angeles, the L.A. teachers union — organized a successful grass-roots campaign that took advantage of teachers’ connections with parents and high school students. Parents and high school students voted in separate tallies and overwhelmingly favored plans put forward by teachers.

Charter school operators cried foul, asserting that teachers had an unfair advantage and misrepresented their record and intentions. They also alleged numerous and egregious examples of improper electioneering and intimidation on the two days of voting.

The League report had little sympathy for these claims, although it acknowledged mistakes and some confusion related to a first-ever effort with a dizzying number of moving parts, including 36 separate ballots. And each of these 36 different ballots was further subdivided by different colors to represent a different group of voters: Parents (who split into four different categories), school employees, students and community members.

The League’s extensive election experience did not quite prepare it for what ensued on Feb. 2 and 6, the days on which nearly all balloting occurred.

The league had originally expected about 10,000 voters to cast ballots from a pool of 100,000. Instead, they collected 44,000 ballots from a pool that ballooned to 275,000.

Double voting occurred because many eligible voters (whose names were on a list according to their status as a school parent or employee, for example) also decided to cast ballots in the “sign-in” categories of “community” and “unverified parent.”

“The problems were most noticeable,” the league’s report said, “where internal and external applicants were engaged in competitive and assertive electioneering practices.”

In other words, bidders — charters and teacher groups alike -- tried to stuff the ballot box wherever and whenever they could figure out how to do it under rules that were sometimes inconsistently applied. But such efforts affected only the community and unverified parents categories, which league officials quickly concluded were an essentially meaningless but engaging exercise in democracy.

A number of charter school leaders have asserted that the elections were too flawed to have any legitimate bearing on Cortines’ recommendations.

Just as predictably, the teachers union asserts the results to be crucially meaningful.

The league acknowledged that on this round there was no way for parents of students in charter schools or magnet programs to have their votes counted in a category with reliable results.

For all the electioneering, parent turnout was low.

“We are quite concerned about the small percentage of parents that participated in the process,” said league executive director Raquel Beltran.

As for future elections, “attempts to assess public opinion should involve adequate voter education, including an independent pro/con analysis of applications,” the league concluded. “This is the single most important tool to empower eligible voters to act in their own best interest.”

The report added: “A longer planning period would be essential.”

-- Howard Blume