DeVos should come to Los Angeles and see how we have improved education for high need students
© Greg Nash

During recent hearings on Capitol Hill about the education budget, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosDeVos opens investigation into universities tied to college admissions scandal: report Celebrity college scandal exposes deeper issues in academic system Trump signs executive order on campus free speech MORE faced tough questions from both sides of the aisle. While she said in the hearing her budget maintains support for high-needs schools, her actions speak otherwise. In a recent 60 Minutes interview she said that she has “not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.” This is an alarming statement by the nation’s highest ranking official on education policy. Nothing ever got better by ignoring it. And regretfully, numerous studies have shown that the majority of students in our underperforming schools are minority students. It implies she is “writing off” the ability for these schools to transform into high-quality institutions thereby improving the lives of their students. As a philanthropist, like Secretary DeVos, I made a different bet.

I invite her and her team to Los Angeles to tour high-need schools (in Boyle Heights, South LA and Watts) that began 10 years ago as the lowest performing schools in Los Angeles. We have rolled up our sleeves and worked to create renewed learning environments for our students. Our schools have seen tremendous growth and our model offers replicable and scalable change.

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By ignoring these schools, the secretary is writing off millions of remarkable students like Ricardo and Ruby. Ricardo is an outstanding student who graduated from Mendez High School in Los Angeles last year and currently attends Columbia University. He’s working toward earning a PhD in computer science.

And there is Ruby, a special education leader at Jordan High School and a graduate of the school. She speaks about how daily fights and lockdowns were normal with a 20 percent suspension rate when she was a student. Now Jordan suspension rates are less than 2 percent. Ruby speaks so eloquently about her school’s transformation. Students are thriving there.

Ricardo and Ruby have benefited from a unique effort that focuses on high-needs schools in the country’s second largest school district. It’s a movement to transform our Los Angeles public schools—The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools—working within the system from the inside out and the bottom up. We are driving district-wide change by supporting and developing great school, teacher and parent leaders and engaging and empowering communities. We serve 14,000 students. 

Our students are considered “high-need” as determined by The Advancement Project and other Los Angeles civil rights organizations that have developed an index ranking of all our public schools by need. The index assesses factors that impact a students’ ability to succeed, including poverty, foster and homeless status, exposure to violence and access to resources. Among our 18 schools, we have the single highest-need elementary school and second highest-need high school. Instead of avoiding these underperforming schools, we have embraced them and helped to transform them.

Almost two-thirds of our schools have surpassed 1,000 or more schools in student achievement in California. According to Public Impact’s independent review of the Partnership, our schools prove that success is achievable, especially in our highest-need public schools.

Regretfully, from her 60 Minutes interview and testimony on the Hill, it seems our secretary of Education considers charter school choice the primary option for parents. It is not. Our efforts are often lumped in with charter school supporters and the Partnership is NOT a charter management organization—we work within the district. We’re seeking change from within the school district to uplift the entire school district and we honor all union agreements.

Public Impact’s independent, data driven report demonstrates the efficacy of our national model—and our additional support amounts to only $650/student, paid by philanthropic dollars. Clearly, our efforts are not privatization but an embrace of our public school system. The Partnership can be replicated and scaled in public school districts across the United States.

Secretary DeVos is correct in that parochial and private schools have a positive place in our education system, but it’s not the number one answer. We are not going to fix anything until together we fix K-12 public education—not dismantle it. Our highest need public schools should receive greater federal investment, not be intentionally avoided by our highest federal officials.

I hope Secretary DeVos will take me up on my invitation to come to Los Angeles and see for herself that the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools proves that charter schools and privatization are not the only answers. 

Melanie Lundquist is an “activist philanthropist” who lives in Southern California. She and her husband Richard have made the largest ever contribution by private individuals to Los Angeles Unified School District public schools.  They have appeared three times on The Philanthropy 50, including #30 in 2017. Melanie is Vice Chair of the Board of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.