Taking on a charter school closing

By Robert D. Skeels

LOS ANGELES--On March 22, students at Ánimo Justice Charter High School, with full support of their families and community, staged a sit-in and rally to protest the school's closure by parent company Green Dot Public Schools.

Over 400 students occupied the hallways of the school for nearly five hours. One Ánimo Justice student's sentiments reflected the general anger at the news: "Everything we do from now moving forward will be to expose all of Green Dot's lies, and everything they said to us and to our parents."

Days earlier, on March 19, Marco Petruzzi, the well-heeled CEO of Green Dot Public Schools, sent out a letter addressed to the Green Dot community announcing the closure of Ánimo Justice.

In the letter, Petruzzi stated, "In this difficult budget environment, Green Dot cannot afford to supplement the costs of an under-enrolled school without impacting the quality of programming." The decision to close the school was made in secret by Green Dot's unelected board of directors.

Los Angeles education activists were somewhat stunned. Green Dot has been touted by pro-charter politicians and the press as "the model" for schools. This was the charter chain that Education Secretary Arne Duncan claimed had "cracked the code" to educational success.

So how could Green Dot--which constantly boasted of long waiting lists as evidence that charter detractors are wrong--close a campus because of under-enrollment? Green Dot, which receives millions of extra dollars from the Broad, Gates and Walton Foundations, has complained of a "difficult budget environment."

We were stunned, but hoped the families would stand up to the school closure, just as families at public schools like Fremont High School and Nightingale Middle School have stood up to layoffs, reconstitution and closures.

The closure decision was also made without any notification to or input from the school's faculty. This made for some dissent among Green Dot's traditionally compliant teachers. A shocked chemistry and environmental science teacher, Judy Riemenschneider, told the Los Angeles Times, "The ultimatum is at odds with Green Dot's principles, which call for teacher input into critical decisions."

The Times article also mentioned that another Green Dot school, Ánimo Film & Theatre Arts, is likely on the chopping block as well.

Following the sit-in on March 22, a rally by students, parents, teachers and supporters caused police to close 27th Street. Exasperated parents demanded to talk with Green Dot's CEO and school officials, but were turned away. This was especially poignant given that Green Dot's so-called "Parent Revolution" group, which claims to be the voice of parent empowerment, was nowhere to be found when Ánimo Justice parents needed support. Organizers of the protest vow more actions in the coming days.

As Leonard Martin, a candidate for the California's Superintendent of Public Instruction, commented, "Like an employer closing a branch plant to save money, Green Dot decided to close one of its many 'subsidiaries' in LA. That decision was taken without input from those most affected by the closure: students, teachers and parents."

It isn't surprising that Green Dot, like other corporate charter management organizations (CMOs), is far more concerned with its bottom line than it is about the education of its students. For CMO boards--stacked with businesspeople, hedge fund managers and investment bankers--and their executives culled from Wall Street and large corporations, children are mere commodities and a means to channel public money into private hands.

We need to fight for the resources to insure that our schools are fully funded and serve our communities, rather than corporations. While we have a long way to go, the fact that families at charter schools are willing to fight shows that people are tired of billionaires and politicians undermining public education.