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L.A. charter school supporters Austin and Arkatov nominated to state school board

March 29, 2010 |  8:47 pm

Two Los Angeles residents with deep roots in local battles over education reform are among four nominees to the state Board of Education, it was announced Monday.

Overall, the nominations by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signal his continued support for charter schools and his impatience with gradual reform, observers said.

A potentially controversial choice is Ben Austin, 40, who led a successful lobbying campaign last year for a state law that gives parents new powers to launch aggressive reforms.

His “parent trigger” allows parents to choose what will happen to a low-performing public school if a majority sign a petition. The options would include shutting the school down and starting over or converting it to a privately operated charter school.

The 11-member board sets education policy for California. The governor appoints its members.

Austin’s nomination is “an ongoing signal that the governor wants aggressive action and that he tires of process, that he wants someone in there who’s going to be slamming away,” said a Sacramento insider who asked not be named because of his position within the state bureaucracy.

Austin heads a parents group funded by charter school operators and philanthropists closely allied with them. He has a long history as a behind-the-scenes Democratic political consultant. A past bid for the elected L.A. school board was cut short over errors in his nomination petition.

He also won a version of the parent trigger in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He earned the ire of the L.A. teachers union through his role in helping to convert Locke High into a charter school and for lobbying in favor of last year’s school-control reform. Under it, poorly performing schools and new campuses could be turned over to outside operators.

Austin’s nomination won immediate praise from L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The other local nominee, veteran public relations executive Alan Arkatov, heads a company that is seeking to blend “the positive aspects of interactive games” into school curriculum.

Arkatov, 48, also sits on the board of the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools. The alliance has opened 16 charter schools in the Los Angeles area and was among a handful of charter operators singled out for a major Gates Foundation grant to link teacher evaluations to student performance. In February, the Los Angeles Board of Education denied the alliance the right to run a small high school in a new education complex east of downtown, overruling L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.

Arkatov’s alliances are not strictly with pro-charter forces. He’s also been a longtime ally of former L.A. school board member Marlene Canter and at times has advised the leadership of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Also nominated was Jeannie Oropeza, 49, of Woodland. Oropeza has served as program budget manager for the California Department of Finance since 1998. She’s well known to Capitol insiders for her background briefings explaining the financial effect of the governor’s education proposals.

All three nominees must be confirmed by the state Senate, as must two re-nominated board members, David J. Lopez and state board President Ted Mitchell. The renomination of Lopez was part of Monday's announcement. Mitchell had been renominated previously.

On the whole, the state board leans toward charter school allies, said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Assn.

“We know a couple of these nominees as very accomplished people,” Plotkin said. “But we’re looking for a little more balance on the board.”

-- Howard Blume