Lisa Alva is a dangerous woman. At least some people think so: last month, she published a blistering piece on the InterACT education website recounting her “broken romance” with some of the leading organizations in education reform. Lisa had already butted heads with some union leaders by speaking out publicly against their seniority policies and resistance to accountability. But her association with the reform movement ended abruptly this past December:
I phoned into a conference call that wasn’t what I expected, and it ended my relationships with the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Teachers for a New Unionism and Educators4Excellence, and put some others in the doghouse…
Listening in to a conference call with the United Way that was supposed to be a talk with education groups but turned into a recruiting session to rally support for LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, Lisa “felt the hair stand up on the back of [her] neck” as she realized that the groups were brainstorming to throw their support to a superintendent believed by some to be anti-union and currently very unpopular due to his recent expenditure of a billion dollars to purchase iPads for LAUSD students.
To Lisa, who had believed these groups to be above politics, it felt like a personal betrayal. For her, groups representing private or charter interests had no business throwing their weight into the politics of a school district that they either were not part of or had deliberately exited.
I began to realize the extent of the ignorance and hubris that fuels many ed-reform decisions, as well as the extent of my own ignorance. The addition of businessmen and socialites to a board I sat on made sense suddenly, as did their posturing and pronouncements. If you’ve ever heard people mis-speaking about things you know intimately, or talking about you when they thought you weren’t listening, you know how pained I was and still am. I couldn’t speak then and have just found the words, now, she wrote in her December piece.
For me, her story is a fascinating study on how difficult it is to remain above the extreme partisanship in education today; simply to express a view in public, or to attempt to explore alternatives, is to find yourself unwittingly cast as an advocate on one side or another, no matter how nuanced your own views may be. A person who is opposed to some entrenched union policies like tenure and is a believer in teacher accountability without being an unequivocal supporter of increased charter expansion may find herself in an extremely lonely position. I myself identify with Lisa because I’ve been urged at times by friends to take a side—to do otherwise, I’ve been told (very politely), is to be a wimp. But what do you do if you sincerely believe in unions, community-based neighborhood public schools and a fairly serious re-envisioning of the teaching profession?
I meet with Lisa a couple of weeks after her post goes up and despite the controversy, she seems calm and at peace with her decision to sever her official ties to the reform movement. Slim, with shoulder-length dark hair tucked under a red beret, she sips coffee as she muses about her long, strange path in education. It’s a life she hadn’t expected; she grew up in East L.A., attending local schools. “My mom and dad did this wicked thing to me,” she says. “They’d say you’re the smartest person in the world. And then I’d go, well, I can be anything, I want to be a ballerina, I want to be an astronaut. And my dad would go, little girls should be seen and not heard. So I grew up with all this inner conflict about what I could and couldn’t do. It’s still with me.”
Leaving home for college in the Northwest, she married young, had two daughters and moved to Oregon “for the fields and the frogs.” But when her marriage broke up, she found herself back in East L.A. living in her childhood home with her parents. Though she tried to run a business, she couldn’t juggle it with raising her children. “My mother said, Lisa, you should become a teacher. You’ll have the time you need for them.”
And so she did. It was the late nineties; the LAUSD was desperate. Lisa walked into a classroom at a middle school through the District Intern program with almost no training. “It was astonishing to me to be given a classroom with children and books” when she had no idea what she was doing, she says. Always driven to be her best, she was bewildered by the utter lack of guidance from anyone, an experience that has fuelled her conviction that teachers and administrators need accountability.
Over the next ten years, she worked in a variety of schools. While earning her administrative credential, she became discouraged by the situation at Markham Middle School in Watts, a school that despite severe staffing problems was prohibited by the unions from hiring new staff or getting rid of incompetent teachers, leaving as many as half of the classrooms in the care of a rotating crew of indifferent substitutes. She became interested in the reform movement, especially as she taught at Roosevelt High, which was ultimately taken over by L.A.’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.
At first, she sided with the reformers, but became disappointed with them, too. “They didn’t know what the hell they were talking about,” she says bluntly. “They spent millions of dollars for us to do all this research and planning. They wanted to divide Roosevelt into seven schools. We made some loud recommendations and they ignored almost all of them. They hired principals who had little experience.” Still, she remained involved with the Partnership and other education reform groups “so I could hear what they were talking about and have whatever influence I could have.”
She stayed at Roosevelt, where she is now Title 1 Coordinator.
But her experience has been disillusioning. She finds it meaningless to talk about accountability when schools are still grossly underfunded. “What happened to me early on is what happens to every teacher. We’re ignored to death and then somebody holds our feet to the fire. The money doesn’t get spent in ways that support teachers or principals. In a time of diminished resources, we’re down to almost no staff and now we have this burdensome evaluation system that no one could possibly implement.” She’s come to believe that as soon as educators become beholden to funders, they lose their authenticity because of an unstated need to match their agenda to the biases of whoever is paying the bills. “They’re just as interested in anyone else in preserving their interests,” she says, discouraged.
Since publishing the post about her phone call, she’s severed all ties to any foundation or think tank other than one, a joint project of the National Education Foundation and TeachPlus. Though her reformist sympathies have made her unpopular at UTLA meetings, where she has been hissed for her ties, she is returning to the union to try organizing teachers who really want change from within. “My union is what strengthens me,” she says. “I need to go back.”
She plans to run for LAUSD District Two school board seat in 2016; she intends to run as an independent allied with neither the union nor the charter movement. Though she’s burned many bridges, she appears untroubled. Despite the controversy from both sides, she’s had an outpouring of support for her honesty. “Somewhere in there I made the decision that I can do this,” she says with a smile.
We agree to stay in touch as the fallout from her breakup continues. I’m extremely curious to see where her story goes next.