Mar 9, 2014
How Kafkaesque Bureaucrats Are Ruining Education
Posted on Aug 19, 2013
The seeds of trouble were planted about a week before UCLA’s fall quarter ended in December 2012, when our students had been fully trained and were ready to go to work in our six partner schools in January, after their holiday break. Jones, focusing on one of the schools, emailed that UCLA would have to submit agreements comprising 19 pages, including insurance coverage for malpractice, liability, auto, workers’ compensation and sexual abuse, plus fingerprinting and clearance forms, TB tests, scopes of work, student schedules and supervision plans.
These forms would have to be signed by Jones, her supervisor, the principal of the school that was the subject of her review, and my dean at UCLA’s graduate school of education. This was hardly good news because I knew from past experience the nightmare that LAUSD red tape can be. Time was critical and the stakes were high. When the UCLA students returned in January, they expected to go to their campuses to mediate, as agreed to by the schools, and if the students failed to complete the winter quarter requirements, even through no fault of their own, they would fail both the fall and winter courses, which are linked in a series.
My heart sank as I riffled through the 19 pages of forms. They were full of legal and district jargon, redundancies, references to us as “contractors” with warnings not to offer cash to district employees to get their business. Having students get TB tests takes only a couple of days, but I was advised that fingerprinting to get clearances by the U.S. Department of Justice can take from two days to a month and cost $78 per student at the UCLA Police Department; we would have to find $2,500 to cover this unforeseen expense.
During the holidays I started the paperwork at UCLA, and over the course of the next two weeks called and emailed Jones several times but got no response. I left messages saying I sent the “scope of work” document she requested and that we were scheduled to have our students at the schools Friday, Jan. 18, less than two weeks away. She finally emailed saying she needed all the materials.
I called Jones again and again and asked whether we could expedite the process, but she was firm—everyone had to be cleared. I appealed to a counselor at one of the other schools where our students were about to begin their mediation work, which turned out to be a big mistake. Within an hour I had an email from Jones, informing me that she had now drawn the second school in the growing snarl of red tape. “You will need to duplicate this process,” she wrote.
It was beginning to feel Kafkaesque, as the bureaucratic powers became surreal. Over the next two weeks there were more reviews, more delays, an error Jones made that had to be corrected. This dragged on many more days. On Jan. 28, 10 days after our students had been scheduled to report to the schools, I emailed Jones. “Would you let me know where we are?” I asked. Predictably, there was no answer.
The next morning I called Jones, who then said that Ridley-Thomas and I would need to be fingerprinted for clearance and have TB tests. I told Jones that one of her colleagues had said that was not necessary if we didn’t have contact with students. These tests are meant to protect schoolchildren, but people who have very limited to no contact with students, including parents, delivery people, the postman or people like us, come and go routinely under a waiver to the policy. That did not matter to Jones.
As a last resort, I called the principal of the school, who had publicly praised the program, and left a message asking him to intervene to save it. Later that day, he left a voice mail that there was little he could do, as “I am just a school-based principal.” He said he would get back to me but never did.
That afternoon we pulled the UCLA students out of the LAUSD schools and placed them at other campuses where we knew we could work cooperatively with the administrators.
The undergrads were furious when they heard the news. One said to me: “I’m not going to lie; I was really angry that I could not work at the school. I promised the kids I would come back and get to know them. This was a big group of kids, and I feel like l lied to them and deserted them.”
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