This week’s New Yorker has a very interesting article about Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school operator in Los Angeles. What’s refreshing about Mr. Barr is that he is trying to reject the old right-left, labor vs. union-buster dichotomy in the school reform debate; his charter schools are unionized and he has reached out to national teachers’ union leadership in an attempt to find common ground (it’s worth noting that he is dismissive of the union leadership in his own backyard). The article focuses on his latest project, a seriously troubled high school in Los Angeles Unified called Locke High.
The jury is out, way out, on whether Green Dot’s efforts at Locke will succeed, but of course the blogs are buzzing already. Here’s a taste:
I don’t know what I think of Green Dot, but I was startled by some of the reporting in this piece. For one thing, the reporter mentions as an aside that Mr. Barr had a school board member on his payroll to relay information about what transpired at closed meetings. That’s just a breathtaking lapse of ethics, not to mention the Brown Act, and if I were a voter in Los Angeles, I’d sure want to know who it is. But there’s no attribution or any other context to this accusation, and I find that suspicious.
In addition, the writer says that Locke High School came in “under budget” but that students were still forced to share textbooks and do without other essentials. Basically, he is asserting that the high school’s impoverished and underserved population makes it eligible for state and local aid that is not being spent where it is intended to go; and where it is most needed. That might be true, but it’s a controversial assertion that deserves more explanation. School budgets and school finance are horribly complex, and budget decisions are more like art than science, with a hefty dose of political and philosophical bias thrown in. In other words, two different ways of budgeting categorical funds (meaning, funds with strings attached) from state and Federal grants might each be legally permissible, but end up with vastly different bottom lines at a particular school. It’s impossible to know why Locke’s budget was structured the way it was without knowing the assumptions behind the district’s budgeting mechanism. And without seeing a comparison between what was being spent at Locke before and after the Green Dot takeover, it’s impossible to know whether the improved environment at Locke is resulting from better budgeting or an influx of additional funds that were not available to LAUSD when it was in charge of Locke.