Tuesday, July 25, 2006

L.A. Story: Can a Parent Revolution Change Urban Education's Power Structure?

More kudos to Steve Barr!

L.A. Story: Can a Parent Revolution Change Urban Education's Power Structure?

By Joe Williams and Tom Mirga

 >>Download the full PDF of this report.

In 1990 Steve Barr "rocked the vote" in America by helping to engineer an upswing in voting among 18- to 24-year-olds with the help of musicians and other pop culture icons. Now the 47-year-old political operative and education entrepreneur is tapping into the frustrations of working-class parents in Los Angeles to rock the city's public schools to their core.

Barr, the founder and chief executive of a nonprofit network of Los Angeles charter schools, is rallying thousands of mostly Latino parents to the cause of school reform and using that political clout to force changes in the 727,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation's second-largest school system.

In mid-July he sought California State Board of Education approval to open as many of the independent, innovative public schools as the state board thinks practical between 2007 and 2012—without interference from LAUSD, which normally plays a prominent role in the process. The state board, which has granted a charter school operator such sweeping freedom only once before, is expected to approve Barr's request in September.

Barr, however, claims that he will not use the power if he receives it, at least not immediately. Instead, he is using the threat to create new charter schools, publicly funded but largely autonomous elementary and secondary schools, to persuade the politicians, bureaucrats and union leaders who run LAUSD to reorient its 858 schools around six principles—small, safe schools with no more than 500 students, high expectations and a college-preparatory curriculum for all students, local control with extensive professional development and accountability, more dollars directed into the classroom, parent participation and keeping schools open later for community use. These are the guiding tenets of Barr's Green Dot charter network, which now numbers five high schools and will double to 10 this fall, bringing the total number of charter schools in the city to 105.

"It's just insurance," Barr said of his petition to the state board. "We will exhaust all efforts to work with the district but just in case we have this in our hip pocket."1

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