*The big community splash that is being made over the news of the takeover of Inner City Educational Foundation, better known as ICEF, the parent company of the popular View Park Prep Charter Academy, is sending shivers through the nation’s independent charter school movement.
A community based charter school system that grew that old fashioned way, through community and parent empowerment, ICEF currently operates fifteen schools, mostly in South Los Angeles.
Despite a lack of cooperation, and, in many cases, opposition from the city’s dominant (and the nation’s largest failing) public school system, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), ICEF grew as parents bolted to View Park Prep and ICEF’s other schools, to save their children from the failing schools in LAUSD. ICEF was not one of those “Big Box” Charter School “warehousers” that came in and took over failing schools or constructed elaborate (and largely unproven) learning models to pull down millions of state and district funded dollars.
ICEF grew by community demand, and therein may have been part of the problem. ICEF may have grown too big, too fast as South Los Angeles parents rushed to be a part of something successful once they recognized that there was a viable alternative to the dysfunction of an outdated and overcrowded public school system. Oh, and one more thing…ICEF is mostly low income and overwhelming African American. It’s as close to a black independent school district as we’re going to get in Southern California (and maybe Northern California).
ICEF’s “takeover,” because of its demography, will have a host of unfortunate stigmas tied to it, most of which doesn’t apply to ICEF, if we let the negative buzz gain salience. But the news around its “rescue” is troubling, only because, in this instance-hindsight is better than foresight. Yes, Los Angeles’ “civic fathers,” former Mayor Richard Riordan, Eli Broad, and Frank Baxter (all developers posed as philanthropists) came to the rescue with $700,000 in short term capital. In reality, those three have the wealth and resources to pay off ICEF’s short term debt (estimated at $3 million), if it was solely about “the good deed.” Dick Riordan is into growth stocks. Anybody who knows how ICEF is positioned, knows its potential “upside” is much brighter than the financial reality of its downside. ICEF has a plan to build (or buy) eleven schools over the next three years, some of which were LAUSD failing schools. Don’t think Riordan missed that for one second.
All ICEF needed to make their plan happen, as “ambitious” as people want to call it, was capital, something Riordan and Broad have plenty of. But they shouldn’t have had to give up control of their charter school system to get it. What Riordan and Broad don’t have are community folk who want to run successful community based charter schools. They do now. They’ve played this game a long time as the “Godfathers” of the West Coast charter school movement. Sort of like “looking for Superman” in reverse, we’ve never had to look for Riordan on a charter school opportunity. He just shows up conveniently…like Superman, but he doesn’t do the “good deed” (in this instance, drop money) and leave. He becomes part of the deal. He’s now ICEF Board Chairman.
How convenient? ICEF needed partners sure enough, but the most logical partner was, is and should’ve been LAUSD. The most successful charter school systems are those that have public funds as partners (See New York’s Eagle Academy $50 million new school with the NYPSD). ICEF reached out to LAUSD this year in fact. They put together the most progressive, and well capitalized, charter school partnership that LAUSD’s “Reform Initiative” received. They came with a $3 million matching grant, in hand, and community support, and the Superintendent’s recommendation. They got everything they needed, but a school out of LAUSD. In fact, they got kicked in the teeth by LAUSD’s School Board. That partnership would have eased ICEF financial woes, activated the matching grant and made it easier for ICEF to procure additional federal money (Race To The Top dollars) to come into their charter school system (that LAUSD also went after). ICEF didn’t stumble. They were tripped, and now it is what it is. I’ll leave it at that.
What it really means for ICEF is they lose their autonomy and may not end up as the independent educational alternative the community envisioned. Time will tell if this is just another “investment” payoff for Riordan. Alternative school systems are what’s needed to make public education compete. ICEF was one of LAUSD’s biggest competitors and when ICEF reached out to partner, LAUSD fronted them off. Let’s watch closely to see what LAUSD does to help save ICEF and allow it to maintain its independence. We’ll find out quite quickly if this is about money or about children.
Before the vultures could pick up ICEF schools one at a time, and before LAUSD raids the schools of much needed students for underutilized facilities, the community has put its arms around it. This is a lesson in the difficulties of trying to escape failing education. Sometimes the life raft sinks when there are too many people in the raft. Now, I guess we on the west coast are waiting for Superman, too (great documentary, go see it)? And while we appreciate the life line investors…I mean, charter raiders, I mean, “philanthropists,” have thrown to ICEF, I’m sorry. Dick Riordan ain’t Superman.
We, the community, are. We’ll be the ones to save ICEF and keep it independent.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com.