October 7, 2011; Source: Los Angeles Times | Los Angeles is one of the many cities across the nation that has turned the management of some troubled schools over to nonprofits. One high profile example was the Manual Arts High whose operation was given by the Los Angeles Unified School District to a local nonprofit called L.A.’s Promise in 2008. Now the District is pulling back control of the high school from the nonprofit because of widely known problems with its day-to-day management of the school.
There seems to have been plenty in the Promise performance that was subpar–teachers without classes, students who couldn’t even get through lunchlines, academic performance falling short causing the loss of $1,000 per student from a government program, large classes (50 pupils in an art class), insufficient textbooks (12th graders forced to use 10th grade textbooks, etc.), etc. The opposition of the teachers union to Promise administration due to its telling most teachers to get jobs elsewhere was actually inconsequential to the bevy of other problems.
Most other nonprofit or for-profit school managers would have been dismissed without a second thought given the reports of shortcomings in L.A.’s Promise, but it was difficult in Los Angeles. The LAUSD was clearly wary of confronting Promise, because the district was engaged in a major fundraising effort led by philanthropist Megan Chernin who just happened to be the head of L.A.’s Promise board of directors.
A senior at Manual Arts put the situation this way: “‘My education is at risk,’ she said. L.A.’s Promise ‘claim[s] to want to do a community turnaround. They’ve definitely done that, but not in a positive way.'”
Public school systems are short of cash. It is difficult to pay teachers, purchase supplies, and buy books, so they turn to private fundraising efforts to supplement public resources. All well and good, but if the engagement of philanthropists leads to situations where school districts feel hamstrung in making needed decisions due to fear of offending their charitable partners, that is really problematic. The need for money shouldn’t lead to giving any donor or group of donors the sense that their favorite clients get special treatment. Hopefully, the prolonged dance of the LAUSD in dealing with L.A.’s Promise reflected the district’s unnecessary overcaution, not Chernin’s weighing in on behalf of her nonprofit.—Rick Cohen