Many people are familiar with the sordid tale of Crescendo Charter Schools in Los Angeles. But for those that haven't been following, here's a recapitulation. Crescendo's inexplicable, but rapidly rising scores qualified them for "miracle school" status, when stories of possible cheating on standardized tests leaked.
Turns out criminal mastermind John Allen, founder and executive director of the Crescendo corporate charter chain, ordered principals at his campuses to break the seals on California Standards Tests (CST) and use the questions therein to prepare students for those selfsame tests.
Surprisingly, it was Los Angeles Times that broke the story that put pressure on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board to take some action other than a mild scolding. This must have been very hard on the typically intransigent Times, who lauded Crescendo and other corporate charter chains back in January of 2010. Public radio station KPCC held an interview with then UTLA President A. J. Duffy discussing the revelations the same day as the Times article.
Thank Goodness for Unionized Teachers
Cresendo's corporate culture of cheating never would have been exposed to the light of day if were not for the fact that part of their faculty were members of a real teachers union — United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).
A small minority of LAUSD charter schools are what's known as affiliated charters, which unlike their counterparts — the essentially wholly unaccountable independent charters — affiliated charters have a smattering of accountability to the public. Another key difference between LAUSD affiliated and independent charters, is that the former honor the district's labor agreements, meaning some of Crescendo's teachers were UTLA. Since these unionized teachers have a modicum of protections like due process, they felt there might be just enough safeguards in place to blow the whistle on Allen, his executives, and administrators.
Had Crescendo's teachers been the de-professionalized "at will" hired help common at charter schools, the disincentive to report the cheating would have been too great, the threat of job loss too daunting, to turn Crescendo's corporate charlatans in. Considering that corporate charter schools fire teachers for things as innocuous as bumper stickers on their cars, one can imagine the fear and uncertainty that non-union teachers work under.
The immediate fallout of the scandal was Allen being suspended and then demoted to director of facilities. Heck, even ICEF's Mike "where's the money" Piscal had the good sense to skip town once millions of public funds went missing. To add insult to injury, Crescendo's well heeled corporate board of directors remained intact. In fact, their corporate board was so arrogant, that their then Board President Leah Bass-Baylis had the unmitigated gall to say:
"While such a breach was not authorized or condoned, the fact that regulations exist to address such breaches suggest they do happen."
The principals were suspended for ten days each.
California Charter Schools Association lackey, Jose Cole-Gutierrez, LAUSD's director of charter schools felt that these meek measures were more than enough:
"We did feel when we raised the issues ... that the board did respond appropriately and took some swift action."
However, when even LAUSD Board Member and fringe right Coalition for School Reform favorite Tamar Galatzan surprisingly questioned letting the wealthy executives and well heeled board members of Crescendo off the hook so easily, the LAUSD Board reconsidered and voted to shut the corporate charter chain down, at which point Crescendo had to make some serious choices.
On March 4, 2011 Crescendo's trustees terminated John Allen. They let all of their principals go, and they then removed five of their seven member corporate board. These moves, were in the eyes of LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, sufficient to keep the schools afloat. LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia exclaimed "They have made changes and have earned the right to stay open."
Supt. Deasy: cheaters often prosper, except when they cheat me
One of the things not mentioned in the corporate media account regarding the agreement to keep Crescendo open was the bringing in another corporate charter chain to manage Crescendo. They chose none other than the plutocrat funded Celerity Charter CEO Vielka McFarlane, whose dubious claim to fame was dismissing institutional racism by declaring children of color merely need to "dress for success..." rather than "focus on how the history of the country has been checkered." McFarlane also worked with the lawless Ben Austin to seize McKinley Elementary School in Compton under Schwarzenegger's vile trigger law.
Part of that deal to bring in an even more notorious Celerity charter chain included a clause that none of Crescendo's terminated administrators be hired by either Crescendo or Celerity. McFarlane patently ignored that stipulation and promptly hired Principal Sheryl Lee, one of the cheating ringleaders for Crescendo. The slick and evasive McFarlane later tried to claim that they knew nothing about the Crescendo scandal that had been playing out in the news for over a year, and that she hired Lee before the agreement with the district.
Deasy, in a brief lapse of lucid honesty and non-corporate-speak spoke to McFarlane's mendacity by saying :
"The second fact is that if Celerity was unaware of the issue at the time, then they would be the only human beings in LA County unaware of the issue at the time."
Deasy had no problem with the cheating , but as soon as he realized that the arrogant and mendacious McFarlane was using a technicality to flout her agreement with LAUSD, he grew furious and recommended not renewing the charters of two of the Crescendo charter schools that were up for renewal, and revocation of the remaining four in the near future. The Board then didn't renew the charters of the two Crescendo schools up for renewal. Essentially Crescendo and Celerity had broken their contract with the District by hiring the principal involved with the scandal.
The Dick Directive
Dr. Richard "Dick" Vladovic was also elected to the LAUSD Board with arch-reactionary Philip Anschutz, AIG bailout recipient Eli Broad, Jerry Perenchio, and Reed Hastings' money in the guise of the astroturf Coalition for School Reform.
Earlier in the Board Meeting, the news that somehow the brave teachers that blew the whistle on the corporate decision to cheat were facing five day suspensions under the new Crescendo Corporate board came to light. This unconscionable punishing of teachers for telling the truth and doing the right thing might seem extraordinary, but corporate charter boards are like that.
All of the other LAUSD Board Members praised the teachers that came forward and exposed the corporate plot to cheat. All of them expressed grave concern that the private board of Crescendo would punish them for the wrongdoings of their supervisors. All of them except for one. Dr. Vladovic, instead of looking at Crescendo's Board and executive staff for culprits, tried to shift blame to the hardworking teachers who had the courage to report their orders by saying: "If you cheat by following orders, it's still cheating" . In other words, even though the teachers blew the whistle on the scandal, he is shifting the entire blame on to them.
Aside being an insubstantial argument on its face, Vladovic's "logic" absolves the real criminals in this instance: the charter school board of directors and their executive staff including John Allen.
Without suggesting an alternative for teachers to follow in the future when teachers are faced with similar situations, teachers will have doubts on whether or not they should report their bosses' malfeasance. Board Member Zimmer defended the fact that those teachers were whistle-blowers. But Vladovic, whose sole allegiance is to wealthy charter corporations, was clearly and deliberately laying the ideological groundwork to silence future teacher whistle-blowers.
When discussing this chilling doctrine with several teachers, they expressed concern that Vladovic's public statements might be taken as a new directive. They went further to say that in line with the publicly stated Vladovic [or Dick] Directive, that in the future union members would follow Vladovic's direction and walk out when anything they deem improper is requested of of them. Of course, we know how that would turn out. The corporately sponsored Board Member has placed teachers in quite a dilemma.
Crescendo and Celerity's executives foster and celebrate cultures of cheating and apparently Vladovic admires that fact, vindictively lashing out against the brave teachers who courageously stood up to orders from their charter executives to systematically cheat with nary a word about John Allen or the wealthy charter executives and board members who all have close connections to the individuals who funded Vladovic's campaign.
Aftermath and Social Justice Solutions
At the end of the day, the LAUSD Board essentially voted to close the six schools. From as social justice standpoint, this is unacceptable. No school should ever be closed as a punitive measure, not even a charter school. Given my principled stance against corporate charters, many might question my sincerity on that, but remember who fought to keep Ánimo Justice charter open, and it sure wasn't Ben Austin's astroturf revolutionaries. Instead of closing Crescendo, the schools should have been returned to the public commons under the Expanded School Based Management Model (ESBMM) or Pilot models, which would have made them real public schools with control by the teachers, parents, students, and community instead an unelected corporate board. The Crescendo schools could have then retained their faculty and curriculum that made them unique and an asset to those families enrolled, while discarding the market based corporate charter model.
The celebrated Professor Diane Ravitch makes an eloquent argument against school closures:
"Closing schools should be considered only as a last step and a rare one. It disrupts lives and communities, especially those of children and their families. It destroys established institutions, in the hope that something better is likely to arise out of the ashes of the old, now defunct school. It accelerates a sense of transiency and impermanence, while dismissing the values of continuity and tradition, which children, families, and communities need as anchors in their lives. It teaches students that institutions and adults they once trusted can be tossed aside like squeezed lemons, and that data of questionable validity can be deployed to ruin people's lives." (Ravitch, 2010, p. 165)
Closing schools causes irreparable harm to communities. While the corporate "market" model depends on disrupting the lives of working people and keeping them in a state of uncertainty, social justice has altogether different demands.
As for the cheating, the only discussion that should be held about Crescendo's entire board, executive, and administrative staff is whether they should be going to Folsom or Pelican Bay. Period. These charter criminals epitomize one of the biggest problems with school privatization, in that the lack of genuine public oversight opens up multiple vectors not only for cheating, but for a whole series of malfeasance.
The principled and ever vigilant LAUSD Board Member Marguerite P. LaMotte, who knows that cheating is rampant in the charter industry, asked the Superintendent to prepare a public presentation of all charter schools known to be participating in cheating in our district. More importantly she wants a public accounting of who monitors testing at charter schools. We'll wait to see if the Broad Academy graduate follows through on Ms. LaMotte's request.
More importantly, all of the recent cheating scandals should be a powerful catalyst in forcing meaningful dialog and discussions about why high stakes testing must be eliminated and that resources must used to help schools instead of punishing them.
At the same time, Dr. Richard Vladovic's vicious scapegoating of one of the victims in this incident, the whistle-blowing teachers, speaks volumes to the duplicity of the corporately sponsored members of the LAUSD Board. He had no such grandstanding for the masterminds of Crescendo's cheating. Perhaps the fact that he gets his campaign funds from the same plutocrats bankrolling the lucrative charter-voucher sector explains his outrageous outburst.
We must draw the right conclusions from this entire episode. The Crescendo chronicles are a stark reminder of everything that is wrong with the corporate education reform model. Every indicator shows high stakes tests undermine education. Systematic cheating is just one symptom of the testing malady. Corporate charter schools lack democratic mechanisms and the modicum of oversight to prevent scandalous behavior by charter executives prone to stuffing public money into their pockets. We need to have consequence free channels for whistle-blowers, and obviously unionized, professional teachers with the protections of due process are the only way to go. The brave teachers that risked their careers to expose John Allen's schemes should be celebrated, not chastised. Lastly, school closures are an anathema to community. The closure of Crescendo schools, rather than returning them to the public fold, truly constitutes a calamity.
Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books., 2010. p. 165
 Items 15 and 16 on the July 12, 2011 LAUSD Board Meeting http://audio3.lausd.k12.ca.us/cgi-bin/qt-dir-audio.pl?Reg_Bd_Mtg//2011regbdmtg/ see 07-12-11RegBd accessed July 30, 2011. Time Mark 02:51:45
 He's a Broad Superintendents Academy Class of 2006 graduate, and therefore was trained in the three core business practices (lying, cheating, and stealing) espoused by the Broad Foundation. From their FAQ: "[P]rivate sector experience is important because there are business best practices which can improve the way the education organizations are operated."
 Items 15 and 16 on the July 12, 2011 LAUSD Board Meeting http://audio3.lausd.k12.ca.us/cgi-bin/qt-dir-audio.pl?Reg_Bd_Mtg//2011regbdmtg/ see 07-12-11RegBd accessed July 30, 2011. Time Marks 3:04:45 and 3:08:50