Plan for special STEM state school draws opposition

Plan for special STEM state school draws opposition

(Calif.) The question of whether the Legislature itself should serve as an authorizing agency for what would essentially be a charter school is set for consideration later this session.

In yet another point of conflict between the mainstream education community and the charter movement, AB 1217 by Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-San Fernando, would establish a state special school dedicated to instruction in science, technology, engineering and math.

Currently, the state operates three specialized schools for students who are deaf or blind, two in Fremont and one in Riverside. Bocanegra’s proposal would create a fourth, to be placed in Los Angeles County that’s aimed specifically at teaching STEM to low-income and underrepresented students.

But unlike most of the legislation working its way through Sacramento this summer, the idea was suddenly unveiled just last week, in a controversial maneuver known as a ‘gut-and-amend,’ where an existing bill is simply repurposed. Now, AB 1217 is attracting some significant opposition.

Critics include state schools chief Tom Torlakson, California Teachers Association, the California School Boards Association, Service Employees Association International 1000, and the California Federation of Teachers. They say the proposed STEM state school is nothing more than a charter and supporters are using the legislative process as a vehicle to circumvent the authorization procedures that give local officials a strong hand in deciding the outcome.

“This legislation raises very strong concerns as it basically establishes a charter school while circumventing the current process for charter school approval–either from a local school district, a county office of education or from the State Board of Education,” said Erika Hoffman, a legislative advocate from the CSBA in a July 10th letter to Bocanegra.

“This bill establishes the precedence of having the state Legislature become a charter school authorizer with no oversight responsibilities,” she said.

Bocanegra defended the proposal, in part because he believes creative measures are needed to spur public education.

“Business as usual doesn’t work,” he said at a hearing last week.

He also noted that even if authorized by the Los Angeles Unified School District, a charter school could only offer enrollment to students already within that jurisdiction—the proposed state school would be open to any student inside Los Angeles County.

Although the proposal is facing formidable opposition, Bocanegra is not alone in backing the plan—he is joined by co-author state Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Canda-Flintridge and apparently also supporting the legislation is the Senate Pro Tem, Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles.

A host of corporate and higher education entities are backing AB 1217 too, including Amgen, the biopharmaceutical giant, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the University of California at Los Angles and the California Institute of Technology.

While a number of labor groups expressed concerns about whether workers are the proposed school would have the right to organize—something that the authors promised to recognize—perhaps the biggest policy issue raised by the proposal is that it would set a new precedent.

The first special state school, the California School for the Blind in Fremont, has roots that date back to the 1860s. The California School for the Deaf in Riverside is the most recently established state school, which was dedicated in the early 1950s.

Thus, lawmakers have not considered using the state special school model in a very long time and applying it now, in this specific case could have unforeseen ramifications.

Supporters of the STEM school have noted that 14 other states have created a state-sponsored school that specializes in technical education that have improved underserved students chances of getting into college and eventually getting high tech jobs. They also note that California, even in its role as the national leader in the tech economy, still faces a shortage of well-trained STEM workers.