With the increasing popularity of charter schools in California, special-interest opposition to them has grown, primarily among those most threatened by their success: the state’s powerful teachers unions.
With more than 1,200 charter schools in California and with an estimated 580,000 students attending charter schools in the 2015-16 school year, the state boasts more charter schools and charter school students than any other in the country. According to the California Charter Schools Association, approximately 158,000 students are on wait lists hoping to attend such schools.
Clearly, they are popular and there is public demand for them. Perhaps it’s the flexibility and accountability of the schools. Maybe it’s to avoid the poor performance of the typical public school, which protects some underperforming teachers with tenure and other rules. Whatever it is that attracts so many parents to charter schools, something about them is upsetting to the state’s teachers unions.
On August 31, the California Teachers Association announced it was launching the “Kids Not Profits” campaign. The stated goal of their efforts is to garner “more accountability and transparency of California charter schools.” But that’s not all. The campaign further aims to expose “the coordinated agenda by a group of billionaires to divert money from California’s neighborhood public schools to privately-managed charter schools.” And that is where the misdirection, deception and political chicanery begin.
For those without expertise in the charter school movement, keep one thing in mind: Charter schools are public schools. They just approach teaching and kids’ learning differently than the neighborhood public schools that are overburdened by political limitations and bureaucracy, much of which has been perpetuated and sustained by union leaders.
The idea that billionaires are trying to enrich themselves by taking away money from local schools is not only false but an inflammatory scare tactic meant to denigrate the good work philanthropists are doing in charter schools to help repair the broken, status quo public school system that other special interests, like the unions, prefer.
The Kids Not Profits website tries to demonize these efforts by pointing out that charter school advocates spent over $11 million in the June 6 primary to influence state legislative races and school board elections, because they “want private corporations to be able to profit from public education.” Their claims are patently false and not grounded in fact.
Take, for example, one of the state’s — and nation’s — chief advocates for charter schools, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. In January, Hastings announced a $100 million fund to help improve access to quality education. He is giving money to schools — not trying to “profit” or take money from public education.
On the other hand, what CTA neglects to mention in its campaign is that it has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns over the past couple of decades, including $4.2 million from January through the end of June this year via its Issues PAC, plus more than $1 million through the Association for Better Citizenship to influence local races. Then there’s the nearly $1 million spent by the California Federation of Teachers to support candidates and ballot initiatives. And that doesn’t take into account the millions they will spend on other political fights in November.
It’s also important to understand how much “profit” the unions take out of California schools. In 2009 alone, the CTA’s “income was more than $186 million, all of it tax-exempt,” according to an analysis of public records by Troy Senik, writing for City Journal. The income the union collects year after year comes directly from taxpayer-funded teachers’ paychecks. Imagine if that money could stay with good teachers or was spent directly in the classroom for students.
There’s nothing wrong with donating to political campaigns. What matters is whether the outcomes they seek are reasonable. Unfortunately, the outcomes desired by the teachers unions just happen to be a status quo where their interests are catered to, regardless of their effects on students. And that’s why they are threatened by charter schools — because they lose revenue for their political agendas
In the past month, local unions like United Teachers Los Angeles, which is best remembered for threatening to strike in 2014 if its members didn’t receive a 17.6 percent raise, have also gone on the offensive against the education reform community.
UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl announced in August that the union was launching an ad campaign carrying “messages that billionaires should not be driving the public school agenda.”
“This is a major intervention in shaping the public narrative,” Caputo-Pearl told members at the union’s 2016 conference, which featured repeated attacks on charter schools and those who fund some of them.
The dishonest narrative the unions want to present is that they are the ones standing up against sinister billionaires who just want to make money. The problem is, it is just not true.
Never mind that teachers unions in California get more than their fair share of the multibillion-dollar education budget in the state, and have considerable leverage in how education funds are allocated and what policies govern public schools. They have had control of public education for a long time, so it is they, the union leaders, who should be held responsible for the deterioration of California public schools — a public school system where more than half the students lack proficiency in math and English. It’s indefensible.
Attempting to shift the blame for shortcomings in our education system on reformers and charter school advocates is purely diversionary. It isn’t charter school proponents who are undermining education. Nor is the current state of affairs the fault of the average teacher who works hard every day to educate the children of our state.
Behind the façade of “kids not profits” — and whatever public narrative unions are trying to spin — the unions’ goals are fundamentally about one thing, and that is political power. This is what thwarts progress in our education system. Instead of embracing innovation and progress to help students, the union bosses have chosen to stifle any form of competition and reform. Their latest campaign is just another sad and frustrating attempt to deceive the public and maintain political power.
Brian Calle is the opinion editor for the Southern California News Group and Sal Rodriguez is a staff columnist.
This piece was originally published by the Orange County Register and the Southern California News Group.