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Green Dot’s Barr: ‘Make Private Schools Illegal’

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 04, 2009 2 min read
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With President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan talking so much about charter schools as a key part of their strategy to remake some of the nation’s worst public schools, it was just a matter of time before charter founders and advocates would be summoned to Capitol Hill to tell their success stories. A half-dozen of them appeared today before the House Committee on Education and Labor to do just that.

There was all the usual chatter about the importance of small, personalized learning environments, accountability, and the dire need for a deeper bench of strong principals and excellent teachers.

So it may have surprised some of the committee members to hear Steve Barr, the brash founder of the Los Angeles-based Green Dot Public Schools, who was recently profiled in the New Yorker, offer up some of his more unconventional notions about how the federal government could help.

“Make private schools illegal and it will scale really fast,” said Barr, who can’t resist being a provocateur and is one of the more colorful schools pitchmen you’ll encounter.

He suggested other more realistic, but still politically difficult, ideas, too. One, which his schools have done from the beginning, is collaboration with teachers unions. Another, he said, is that the feds could help encourage states to designate someone other than a state schools chief (a governor or mayor, perhaps) to step into a school district that hasn’t taken action to turn around chronically failing schools. No doubt that idea comes from Barr’s years-long battles with the Los Angeles Unified School District over some of its gigantic, low-performing high schools.

Keep your eyes on Barr, who has been in discussions with Secretary Duncan about expanding Green Dot’s high schools to other large cities as part of the Obama administration’s strategy for turning around failing urban campuses, much as Green Dot is attempting to do at Locke High School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

When I first wrote about Barr three years ago, he said he had no interest in taking Green Dot outside of Los Angeles. Last fall, however, he opened a new charter school in the Bronx, in partnership with New York City’s teacher’s union. Now, he says he’s going to “spend the summer” thinking about whether he’d want to become the administration’s go-to guy on high school turnarounds and turn Green Dot into a national organization.

“It’s Obama,” Barr said after the hearing. “He’s the reason I am even considering this.”

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