Waiting for K.J.

Mayor Kevin Johnson evangelizes for Superman and school reform

Fifth-grade teacher Carlos Rico says much of the reform agenda being pushed by Kevin Johnson and others will undermine the teaching profession, and ultimately students.

Fifth-grade teacher Carlos Rico says much of the reform agenda being pushed by Kevin Johnson and others will undermine the teaching profession, and ultimately students.

Photo by Mike Iredale

If you haven’t yet seen the movie Waiting for “Superman,” you probably have a sense of its main message: Schools are failing American kids, largely because teachers unions have too much power and have blocked needed reform. Even people who haven’t seen the film have an opinion about it.

Like the dozen or so parents and teachers who protested the film’s opening in Sacramento on October 4—marching with signs saying things like, “Stop blaming teachers,” or the ever-popular “Where’s my high school?” or “Real reform = smaller class size.”

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has been evangelizing about the film for weeks—holding two special screenings of the film in Sacramento. He has his own long history of fighting the unions here in Sacramento over his own St. Hope charter school, which took over Sacramento High School in 2003.

So does his fiancée, one of Superman’s main protagonists, former Washington, D.C., Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. She made national news last week when she resigned that post after her boss, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost re-election last month. Rhee acknowledged the defeat was at least partially a referendum on her attempts to reform D.C. schools.

On October 5, a theater full of Johnson’s guests—including elected officials and business leaders—were treated to the film and a panel discussion including the mayor, Rhee, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Don Shalvey, described by the mayor as the “godfather of the charter school movement.”

The mayor’s aides would later tell SN&R that representatives from the Sacramento City Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers had been invited to participate in the panel discussion but declined.

During that discussion, Rhee said she worried the message people will take away from the D.C. election is “Don’t try what Fenty did, you will be crushed.”

But Mayor Johnson certainly hasn’t been scared off yet. He reels off indicators of Sacramento’s public schools failure: Only 43 percent of students meet the academic targets set by the state’s Academic Performance Index. Only 39 percent of third-graders are reading on grade level. The “achievement gap” between white and African-American students is closing, but so slowly as to be almost meaningless.

“We can’t wait 250 years for equity. We need a disruption of the current system,” he told SN&R.

Johnson’s agenda for Sacramento schools:

• Tenure reform: “Under the current system, teachers are ensured a job for life, regardless of performance,” he said.

• More choice and competition among schools: Johnson said he’d like to see 20 percent of Sac City students enrolled in independent charter schools.

• Ending the seniority system and the practice of “last in, first out”: The American Civil Liberties Union brought a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District and won a settlement when the courts agreed that the seniority system there unfairly hurt kids in challenged schools, where new teachers are often sent.

• Improved teacher evaluations for teachers, including measuring teacher performance by student test scores.

• More “accountability,” including closing underperforming schools or converting them into charter schools.

Asked if these reforms were realistic, Johnson replied, “If the board is going to be union-controlled, you’re not going to see reform.” He’s backing a slate of reform candidates that includes Paige Powell, Shane Singh and Andrea Corso.

He added that a new board can help “create an environment” for new Superintendent Jonathan Raymond to make changes. “The board hired him with the belief that he was going to be a reformer. This next year is going to be critical for him.”

Raymond, the former “chief accountability officer” in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, school district, is a graduate of The Broad Superintendents Academy, which supports many of the reforms being promoted in Superman.

The Broad Foundations gave Johnson $500,000 to start Stand Up Sacramento, Johnson’s nonprofit education initiative (and the organization which organized the local Superman screenings).

Sacramento fifth-grade teacher Carlos Rico told SN&R that Johnson’s reform agenda is right off The Broad Foundations menu. “He’s just regurgitating what Eli Broad is saying. That’s not local control. School boards should control the schools. Not billionaires with foundations, not the federal government, and not Kevin Johnson and his cronies.”

In existence for about a year, Stand Up is still looking for an executive director. But Johnson says next year, he hopes the group will begin to issue letter grades to schools, based on each school’s academic performance, culture and leadership. Stand Up is also supporting an initiative to increase parental involvement in student education.

Many classroom teachers oppose the new emphasis on testing and accountability because they believe it will lead to punishing teachers with the lowest scores—or closing the schools that lose the testing game.

And they point to studies like a recent Stanford University report that shows only 13 percent of charter schools outperform public schools. Most do about the same, and 33 percent actually fare worse than public schools. Johnson countered, “I think we should close failing charter schools, too.”

In response to the reform push, the Sacramento City Teachers Association is sounding alarms. A recent e-mail to teachers warned that “we need you more than ever to fend off anti-classroom politicians who will do whatever it takes to eliminate your pensions and benefits and increase your class sizes.”

Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But so is the new push to purge so-called bad teachers, says Lori Jablonski, a McClatchy High School teacher who serves on the board of the Sacramento City Teachers Association. She says teachers do in fact get fired in the district, and that “pieces are already there” to periodically evaluate teachers, but that “over the years, administrators have become so overloaded that the evaluations are often cursory.”

“Unions do not protect bad teachers,” agreed Rico. “We just protect their right to due process.”