L.A. school reform effort draws diverse group of wealthy donors

L.A. school reform effort draws diverse group of wealthy donors

By Howard Blume

Republicans, liberals, Hollywood notables and global corporate
executives are among those who gave to the Coalition for School Reform.

They hail from New York, the Silicon Valley, Arkansas, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
They are a rich and diverse lot, including Republicans, liberals, Hollywood notables and international corporate executives.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, pomegranate juice titan Lynda Resnick, anti-Obama mega-donor A. Jerrold Perenchio and the widow of Steve Jobs.

Together, they smashed records for spending by outside groups in last month’s L.A. Board of Education elections. These major donors poured about $4 million into the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee spearheaded by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

On the surface, they have little in common. But this group united in Los Angeles behind education issues that have become national in scope, including the growth of publicly funded charter schools and the use of student test scores in teacher performance evaluations. Most want to reduce job protections for teachers and support the education agenda of the Obama administration. Some even want to limit collective bargaining rights for teachers.

They believed that a successful stand in the L.A. Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system and a hotbed of unionism, would have a sweeping effect.

The coalition received mixed results: It won one race, lost another and ended up in a runoff in the third.

Critics have questioned the motives of the outside donors, noting their ties to corporate interests. The criticism is fair, but skepticism about their motives is misplaced, said Rick Hess, an education analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, who has not wholly endorsed the donors’ agenda.

For the most part, “political donors, whether we agree with them or not, are presumed to believe in the candidates or measures they’re funding,” Hess said. “I’ve yet to see a single convincing piece of evidence that some of the donors to education efforts are deceitful about their ‘real’ agenda.”

Still, their stand here was about more than individual candidates.

A consistent theme was supporting the growth of charter schools without excessive regulation. Charters are independently managed and publicly financed. Most are non-union. Some see them as a strategy to weaken teacher unions and a way around ossified school district bureaucracies.

The California Charter Schools Assn. advocacy arm gave $312,000 to the coalition and spent an additional $30,000 on its own independent campaign aligned with the coalition. It spent $50,000 more on an “information” campaign that targeted an L.A. board member in the months prior to the election.

The advocacy group, under federal law, doesn’t have to disclose contributions, but has acknowledged that its largest donors include Bloomberg, who also gave the largest single donation to the coalition — $1 million; Hastings, who gave $100,000 to the coalition; and Carrie Walton Penner, part of the founding family of Wal-Mart, which has vigorously opposed organized labor in its operations. (The Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation also is the largest funder of the California charter association.)

The coalition also received indirect support from the Walton foundation. It’s a major funder of StudentsFirst, headed by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. She recruited donors by describing her goal as opposing the political muscle of teacher unions. Her advocacy division gave $250,000 to Villaraigosa’s coalition.

Another motivation for donors was to show support — through a successful school board campaign — for revamped teacher evaluations pushed by L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. This approach, which uses student standardized test scores as a key measure, is sweeping the country as states adopt such systems in line with incentives from the Obama administration.

Donors were persuaded that Deasy’s job — and policies viewed as leaving a national mark — could be on the line if the election didn’t go the way of Villaraigosa’s endorsed candidates.

Deasy has “done a fine job in trying circumstances,” said Broad, a national figure in education. The wrong outcome, said Broad, who gave $250,000 to the coalition, could have resulted in Deasy’s dismissal or resignation, which could “set the school district back years.”

Deasy’s job appears safe for now, even though the coalition has succeeded in just one race. Incumbent Monica Garcia, a strong Deasy ally, won outright; Kate Anderson lost to incumbent Steve Zimmer — who had the support of employee unions; and Antonio Sanchez will be in a May 21 runoff.

A mostly new, relatively untapped source of coalition money has been Hollywood, a connection that Deasy has nurtured through creation of the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education. The fund, which operates outside L.A. Unified control, is headed by Megan Chernin, spouse of producer Peter Chernin.

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The Mystery of Memory

The Mystery of Memory

by Dr. Tali Shenfield

Have you ever read and enjoyed a book, only to discover that you can’t remember it years later? Things start to come back when you pick it up and reread it, yet that reread is mostly a new experience that is only modified by the original reading. The same sort of thing occurs with the names of people we knew in the past. How many of us can accurately list the names and faces of the people we knew in the seventh grade?

Memory is a strange thing. There is a transience about it that is both unique and mysterious. The day-to-day details get lost amid the constant updates. How many of us remember what we had for breakfast two weeks ago last Sunday, let alone twenty years ago? The transience of memory may have something to do with the emotional impact of the memory. We may remember our first kiss, but not the face of our math teacher, unless we either really loved or really hated math.

Long-term and Short-term Memory

Transience affects both short and long-term memory. A short-term memory (also called working memory) is formed when the mind relays what is happening now to what happened only a short time ago. A good example of short term memory is writing a long sentence. You wouldn’t be able to string the words together in any meaningful way unless you could remember the words that you wrote a few seconds before. Short term memory gets displaced quickly. It gets knocked out of position by the next thing the mind focuses its attention on. In one experiment, test subjects were given a three letter sequence to memorize and then were asked to count backward in sets of threes, such as 100, 97, 94 etc. It took only eighteen seconds of backward counting to displace the three letter set.

By contrast, long term memory seems to be a matter of slowly forgetting. We move to a new neighborhood and we slowly forget the faces of the people and the names of the streets where we once lived. Of course, when we revisit that place, the memories start coming back. This is evidence that we, perhaps, never really forget anything. The information is just downgraded, because we aren’t using it, until it gets filed in some remote cubbyhole of the mind, until circumstance cause us to pull it out and dust it off. There is no real evidence that the human mind actually ever really forgets anything. The problem is that the further back you go, the more debatable the memory becomes. There are vivid memories from childhood that can be triggered by a cue, such as a particular smell or sound or even the return of a person that we knew as a child. Memories can sometimes be recalled under hypnosis, but the veracity of such memories depends to a great extent on the hypnotist. This is especially true of memories of events that took place long ago. People under hypnosis are very suggestible and it is easy for a hypnotist who doesn’t know what he’s doing or is looking for a memory he believes is there to accidentally “implant” a memory of something that never actually occurred.

We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the human mind. The more we study, the more its complexity, diversity and adaptability amaze us. Will there come a time when we truly understand every nuance of our minds and all the hidden corners are revealed?