Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 8, 2013

Bridging the gap

As head of county education board, Palo Altan backs charter school growth

by Chris Kenrick

Six years after rocking the Palo Alto education scene with a threat to petition for a charter school here, Grace Mah finds herself in the vanguard of a major charter-school drive as president of the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

The county board, which Mah joined in 2007, has OK'd two dozen charter schools in the past two years, aimed almost entirely at boosting options for low-income children in San Jose — not for Mandarin Immersion, which Mah had sought in Palo Alto in 2007.

Mah's journey from engineering manager at Agilent Technologies to elected official overseeing a $275 million countywide agency with more than 1,700 employees would seem an unlikely one.

Today, she bridges the gap between oversight of the county's nearly 300 traditional public schools, which are heavily regulated under the California Education Code, and a reform movement of 52 public charter schools that is experimenting with new learning models.

The charter schools, whose numbers are growing, operate with public funds but less bureaucracy in exchange for meeting agreed-upon educational targets.

Mah was drawn into education activism a decade ago when, in search of a preschool for her first son, she responded to a Palo Alto Weekly ad for a Mandarin-English program.

She enrolled him in that home-based preschool. When he made good progress in the language she began wondering why the Palo Alto school district couldn't replicate its wildly popular Spanish Immersion program with a parallel K-5 offering in Mandarin.

Amassing a 250-member Yahoo group through various contacts, including the Palo Alto-Menlo Park Parents Club, Mah generated a petition signed by 1,000 community members in support of Mandarin Immersion for Palo Alto.

What followed in 2006 and 2007 was a bruising political battle that resulted in the 2008 launch of Mandarin Immersion at Ohlone Elementary School — and some hard feelings that, for a few, linger even today.

After initially losing her bid for Mandarin Immersion on a 3-2 school board vote in January 2007, Mah decided to pursue a charter-school petition.

The prospect of a costly and polarizing charter battle persuaded school board member Dana Tom and then-member Mandy Lowell to reverse their votes.

Five months after rejecting it, the school board voted 4-1 in May 2007 in favor of launching Mandarin Immersion in the fall of 2008. Joining Lowell and Tom in the majority were Barb Mitchell and Camille Townsend. Dissenting was then-board member Gail Price, who is now on the City Council.

Mah was in the midst of the 2007 Palo Alto charter effort when she was appointed to the county board, filling a vacancy created by Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Evers, who resigned to become an assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration.

The following year she was elected to a full four-year term with 71 percent of the vote. She was re-elected in 2012 with 66.76 percent.

Mah's opponent last November, Los Altos computer engineer Dave Cortright, focused almost exclusively on her pro-charter voting record, which aligns with that of the county board majority.

Despite a lack of experience in public service or education, Cortright secured the endorsement of the South Bay Labor Council representing 90 unions and more than 100,000 union members in Santa Clara and San Benito counties.

He got 33 percent of the vote.

Mah indeed has been a solid part of the county board's pro-charter majority.

That includes a sweeping grant of 20 charters in December 2011 to the ambitious Rocketship Education, a charter-management company co-founded by Palo Alto resident John Danner. Among the supporters of the Rocketship charters were San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, as well as many parents.

"Charter schools give families of underserved kids another choice besides the traditional school, which typically has been failing those kids," Mah said in an interview with the Weekly.

"It's considered an equal-opportunity, civil rights mandate to be able to support kids to have equal access to a really great education.

"I believe in choice in general, in parents having that ability if they want to have that different kind of education."

Although there are none in Palo Alto, there are 52 charter schools among the 352 schools across Santa Clara County, 33 of them in San Jose.

Thirty-six of the 52 are run by individual school districts.

The remaining sixteen — with many more in the pipeline — are chartered by the county Office of Education.

Charter schools are publicly funded entities that operate on five-year "charters" from sponsoring agencies, usually a school district.

They are exempt from many strictures of the California Education Code but are required to meet educational benchmarks as measured by standardized tests taken by all California students. They must petition for renewal every five years.

Prominent supporters of charter schools as a means to closing the achievement gap include U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, philanthropist Bill Gates and, locally, Netflix CEO and education activist Reed Hastings.

Hastings sits on Rocketship's national strategy board.

Santa Clara County's charter grants to Rocketship, which already operates six charter schools in San Jose, are part of "San Jose 2020," an initiative to eliminate the achievement gaps among San Jose's 150,000 public school students by 2020.

Currently, nearly half are not proficient in grade-level skills, and 2,300 middle and high school students drop out each year.

The Rocketship charters, projected to be educating 14,000 San Jose students by 2020, are "like opening a whole new school district," Mah said.

"So far Rocketship has been doing well, scoring really high on (standardized) tests as one of their metrics and with a lot of happy campers."

But Mah acknowledged a Rocketship pledge to slow its school openings if existing schools are not meeting certain test-score metrics.

"The plan is to open five schools per year for four years, but if they don't feel they've got the bandwidth or quality level they won't open," she said.

Rocketship also has secured charters to open eight campuses in Milwaukee, Wis., and up to eight campuses in Washington, D.C., in the next few years. It is pursuing initiatives to open campuses in Oakland, New Orleans and Chicago as well.

Mah rejects criticism that the county board has never seen a charter it didn't like or is circumventing the control of local school districts. Some of the seven school districts located within the City of San Jose are unhappy about the county grants.

"To be a countywide charter you have to not only have a sound program, sound financials and a sound organization, but you have to be able to prove that what you're doing and teaching is something that a local district cannot do," she said.

She opposed the 2011 renewal petition of Bullis Charter School in Los Altos on grounds that the school proposed boundaries that excluded low-income neighborhoods. She was in the minority on that 5-2 vote.

Mah says she also will vote against charters when, in her view, they lacked a sound educational plan.

"We've closed down two charter schools for financial reasons, and there was another one that came to us where we felt the organizers didn't have enough preparation and resources.

"Studies have shown that charter schools as a whole can be just as good or bad as traditional public schools, so that's why it's important for us to make sure all our schools maintain their quality," she said.

Though charter-school controversies have made recent headlines, the county Office of Education has a far broader purview to oversee and support the county's 31 separate school districts, which collectively educate nearly 270,000 children.

Of its $275 million budget from state, federal and local sources, most goes toward special education, with about half the office's 1,730 employees allocated to that area.

The county office operates classes on public-school campuses to serve children with special needs and also coordinates preschool and post-high school programs for special-needs students.

It runs 32 federally funded Head Start programs and several additional state-funded preschool programs and administers federal grants targeted to education for migrant children.

It is the pass-through agency for a variety of restricted state and federal funds and also provides personnel services for many school districts, including fingerprinting and printing paychecks.

The board acts as an appeals agency for expulsions, interdistrict transfer requests and charter-school petitions.

Of the office's 1,730 staff members, about 425 work in the Office of Education headquarters in San Jose which features a three-story atrium with a wall of glass and an indoor pond.

The board has dipped a toe into the controversy over the high number of school districts in Santa Clara County — 31.

The Santa Clara County Grand Jury has found that millions could be saved through consolidation.

Silicon Valley Community Foundation Executive Director Emmett Carson has argued strongly that having 56 separate school districts in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties constitutes a "fundamentally flawed system," obscuring accountability for large numbers of low-performing students.

At its Feb. 20 meeting county board members unanimously backed a $29,000 contract for a limited study "to evaluate various reorganizations of school districts within Santa Clara County."

"There certainly are a number of very small districts that would stand to improve efficiencies and lower costs by unifying with neighboring districts," Mah said.

"But the problems with the whole idea is typically it has to be voted on by local communities, and a lot of local communities don't want to change their school districts. People are emotionally tied to their schools as community centers.

"Hopefully our study will highlight some possible improvements."

With the county board entrenched in the state and local bureaucracy of public education, Mah continues to forge ties to the reform movement.

She and fellow board member requested funds to attend the invitation-only summit held annually by the New Schools Venture Fund, a venture-philanthropy firm that has invested heavily in charter schools, the Khan Academy video courses and other entrepreneurial efforts to transform public education.

"These are the billionaires that want to change public education in America, and they're putting a lot of money into venture funds that support startups on software for schools ... or charter organizations they feel are doing an exceptional job," said board member Joseph Di Salvo, a former teacher, teachers' union president and principal.

"There are frighteningly few traditional public-school people at these conferences," said Di Salvo, who has attended in the past.

"I think we should all know what they're saying about traditional public schools, and how they're able to do it differently."

Mah and Di Salvo will attend the New Schools Summit at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront Hotel next month.

Di Salvo, who represents parts of San Jose on the board, spent 33 years in public education, four of them as principal of Palo Alto's JLS Middle School.

He's come to see charter schools as necessary to fixing a "very broken" public education system.

"I know the system is broken and we need outside forces, provocateurs, if you will, to influence and move things," he said.

Di Salvo said Mah is "well-equipped emotionally, intellectually and politically to guide our work in a balanced and thoughtful way."

With her older son now taking Mandarin at Gunn High School and the younger a fourth-grader in Ohlone's Mandarin Immersion Program, Mah continues her interest in bilingual education, serving as a community liaison for the Ohlone program.

She's organizing a trip to China this summer for Ohlone fourth- and fifth-graders, not through the school district but through the independent youth organization Me to We.

"I think the 'fight' is behind me — Mandarin Immersion at Ohlone is successful, this being its fifth year with a full strand of 125 students K-5," she said.

"Having another language immersion program as a choice for parents has been a great opportunity."

Both of her sons' Mandarin level has surpassed her own, which she spoke as a toddler growing up in southern California but abruptly stopped at the age of 4.

Though her parents met in the United States, they spoke Mandarin with her, their oldest, until a preschool teacher told them their daughter wasn't talking.

"They said, 'Grace might be mentally retarded — she can't speak.' After that my parents said 'No more Chinese; let's speak English.'

"People weren't very enlightened about bilingualism back then."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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