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Houston, We have a Problem: Digital Liftoff Without Direction

Sara Roos: Adaptation to the novel coronavirus emergency is no excuse to substitute unauthorized political ideology, for public deliberation of any District-wide restructuring to an online pedagogy.

In his March 11, 2020 weekly address, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner misleadingly refers to the emergency effort transiently supporting disrupted schoolsite instruction with internet applications (e.g., Zoom for conferencing, online worksheets and textbooks for resources), as an explicitly sanctioned “transition to online learning.” In the logical sleight-of-hand at 2:52m, Beutner considers the technological “transition” a foregone conclusion and proclaims efforts to achieve it a “moonshot”. Varnishing the de facto pedagogical revolution with declarative assurance (known colloquially as “fake news”), he deadpans that “the rockets have been built and liftoff has occurred.”

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But while technology certainly is being utilized, online learning is less assuredly a thing.

Adaptation to the novel coronavirus emergency is no excuse to substitute unauthorized political ideology, for public deliberation of any District-wide restructuring to an online pedagogy.

The emergency imperative of social distancing may compel the district’s efforts, but no shift in fundamental policy has been declared by its policy-setting school board (BOE). On March 10, 2020 the BOE authorized “the Superintendent to take any and all actions necessary to ensure the continuation of public education and the health and safety of District students and staff….” However there has been no accordance on equating emergency public education measures with a new normal in public education consisting of online instruction.

Shifting our beleaguered public schools to an online platform is not a new inclination. Dr. John Deasy, graduate of Eli Broad’s Academy of public school administration and LAUSD’s Superintendent during the aftermath of the Great Recession, followed the same script as Broad’s protégé Beutner(at 1:57m) in casting digital learning as educational panacea in the wake of education underfunding. Rather than focus on the reversible sequelae of inadequate funding by, say, advocating for November’s Schools And Communities First ballot measure to appropriately tax California’s business sector for educational needs, Beutner reiterates a story that deemphasizes the steady historical decimation of educational resources. This distracts from the push to shrink government ‘to a size that can be drowned in the bathtub’, the impact of austerity measures on education.

But math classes are not just “35”; the norm for regular district high school classes is 41.5 students (on average, individual classes upwards of 50 students are not unknown) per teacher. Libraries did not just mysteriously lose librarians, shuttering libraries was a measure enacted bySuperintendent Deasy in the runup to his own technology push, the ipad scandal. Libraries were devalued as educational tools for literacy, their irrelevancy prophecied “as books will move to electronic format.” Their fate remains a political football to this day.

Superintendent Beutner’s subsequent 5/18/20 address backfills at 1:56m with context of education spending cuts or oversight in the age of Covid. But school funding has been diminished for decades; LAUSD should be, and should have been, advocating for full funding of the public sector.

Instead LAUSD presents the fait accompli of summer school “partnerships” never acknowledging involvement of any actual, public sector teachers, preferring to highlight private partnerships among companies fielding their own industry-challenges. These are: (1) Illumination, an animation studio owned by giant entertainment conglomerate Universal Studios, buffeted like the rest of Hollywood by the Covid19 emergency and now lacking even a functioning website, (2) widely maligned if sporadically commercially successful Hollywood director James Cameron, (3) the pre-Covid economically precarious and nationally needy Los Angeles Chargers, (4) the Columbia Memorial Space Center, a memorial to the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia owned and operated by the City of Downey, a municipality with no presence in LAUSD that operates its own school district, and (5) Fender guitars which has been commercially marketing its poorly-reviewed “free” learn-to-play app since July, 2017. LAUSD will “help” 1.8% of its total MS enrollment (1500 of 84,835 students) access 0.3% of the free 500K lessons Fender has pledged already under “Safer At Home” pandemic conditions.

Where are our certificated LAUSD teachers? Why are their own employment and economic needs not being simultaneously supported with LAUSD student’s academic ones? Where are the numerous labor partners, ready to cede this important moment, key to sustaining relevance as educational provisioners and professionals? LAUSD teachers teachart, film, sports medicine, oceanography and environmental science, music.

But recipient’s selection notwithstanding, the procurement of money for LAUSD satellite vendors stops for no public health emergency. The board meeting of Tuesday, 5/19/20, recommends approval of two “buckets” of <$250K expenses from the Superintendent’s office for: (i) ~$47.4m (for HS master schedule analysis, student-run banks, sales tax recovery, 29,786 contracts in Feb/March) and (ii) $71m in emergency spending to vendorsduring Covid (p. 53 of the full materials pdf and supplement here).

The agenda is long, and can be found in short (22 page) form here, with fuller explanation and materials (472 pp) here.

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Procurements >$250K and other business include:

  • $9.5m for Schoology (5yr contract),
  • contracts for professional development for private schools (explained on p. 93 of the full pdf; an oddity of federal education policy),
  • continued licensing of SchoolMint integrated online school search portal,
  • facilities contracts for schools of uncertain opening status, including inspection and service of air chillers, floor maintenance and furniture moving equipment, LPG fuel, tire, and vehicle parts for District vehicles (arguably serendipitous timing for long-term maintenance),
  • exemption of local ordinances and construction of a $78m independent charter school (from a complicated funding formula that includes dedicated charter bond monies for half and a mixture of state bonds, loans and other private monies otherwise),
  • Proposition 39 (charter school facilities) renovations of (up to) $12m,
  • $60m in emergency Covid technology procurements (see Attachment A, p. 53),
    • nearly two-thirds of which ($37.8m) is (ironically) to Apple;
    • ~40% of that ($15.5m) is to Arey Jones, a San Diego company specializing in “delivering exceptional technology products” and
    • ~40% of that ($6.7m) is to Verizon and T-mobile for connectivity.
  • The balance of the $71m in emergency spending, for food services.

The 1pm board meeting will be streamed live from this link. Public comment can be emailed to boardmembers@lausd.net and superintendent@lausd.net; in-person socially distanced comments may be possible, too.

Adaptation to the novel coronavirus emergency is no excuse to substitute unauthorized political ideology, for public deliberation of any District-wide restructuring to an online pedagogy.

sara-roos

Sara Roos
Los Angeles Education Examiner