LAUSD Is Tormenting Its High-Performing Charter Schools to Death

LAUSD school busEDUCATION POLITICS – The Los Angeles Unified School District and some of the nation’s highest-performing charter schools are engaged in what one report has called a “game of chicken” – with the fate of 14 of these schools and their nearly 4,600 students hanging the balance. But that suggests this is about two parties engaged in dangerous brinksmanship. In fact, it is about charter schools finally standing up to teachers union’s bullying.

Charters are publicly funded schools that offer students an alternative to the local public school monopoly. They have been a particular boon to low-income and special-needs students who are stuck in ill-performing districts. Major school systems, such as LAUSD, and their unions often are hostile to these thriving education alternatives, yet they hold the charters’ fates in their hands – and they use their power to hobble them.

In LA, district staff are requiring the charters to accept 39 pages of newly updated “district-approved language” – regulations that affect nearly every aspect of the schools’ operation. One provision the charters find particularly troublesome is a requirement that allows LAUSD to change the rules any time for any reason.

The stepped-up requirements aren’t that different from what the charter schools have put up with before, but the movement is more united than in the past and has finally had enough. A more favorable political climate has strengthened its resolve. Bottom line: the rules require the charters to comply with increasing portions of the education code, this making them more like public-school appendages than independent entities that can innovate and chart their own path.

The rules increasingly put the charters under the thumb of a frequently hostile school bureaucracy. Just like traditional public schools, they are being forced to focus more time and resources on filling out paperwork and complying with regulatory audits and paperwork requirements. It makes them less able to innovate and focus on the students.

The charters can accept the edicts, or else – the “else” being a denial of the schools’ renewal petition or a refusal by the district to grant petitions that would let new schools begin their operation. The fair-minded LA School Report explains, “An unprecedented number of charter school petitions could be denied (this Tuesday) because Los Angeles charter leaders are standing up against district policies they say require increasing amounts of time and money to satisfy and take away resources from the classroom.”

The head of the leftist, anti-charter “In The Public Interest” offers the full anti-charter spin in the Huffington Post, noting, “A number of Los Angeles charter schools up for renewal this week are throwing a tantrum if they don’t get their way” and “have refused to comply” with LAUSD’s charter policies. Well, it’s hardly a tantrum to contest ham-fisted government rules that are designed to destroy the essence of what they are.

“It’s quite ironic,” said Michael MeCey, director of the Sacramento-based California Parents for Public Virtual Education, which represents online charter families. “For years these districts have told successful charter schools: Either conform to our draconian rules which have created student failure factories or lose your charter.” Such a choice.

So, good for the schools for fighting back, given that conforming to these open-ended rules threatens the very things that make these charters successful. The battle is about their independence, freedom from bureaucracy, ability to experiment, and hold their teachers accountable rather than be subject to the union work rules that coddle poor-performing educators.

The battle has drawn widespread media coverage for local political reasons. The charter-school movement helped elect its first majority of school-board members. So the dispute will highlight whether the new supposedly pro-charter board majority will support these charters in this existential battle. The question is in doubt given that the board last month sided unanimously with the district staff by turning down a high-performing Hebrew-language charter that wouldn’t accept the district’s required language, according to the LA School Report article.

But all is not lost for the charters even if the board votes to deny all the petitions. In fact, a rejection – however unsettling that would be for these local schools – could be good news for them and the state’s charter-school movement by setting a precedent whereby charters could more easily bypass recalcitrant school districts. State law allows charters to appeal their rejection to the county or the state boards of education – both of which are more friendly to charters, and more likely to closely follow California’s generally pro-charter statutes.

This dispute explains why teachers’ unions tried to pass Senate Bill 808 in the last session. Deemed the “charter killer,” the measure would have, in part, prevented “charters who are rejected by their districts from appealing to the county or state,” according to a California Charter Schools Association explanation. The measure would have made the LAUSD board the final arbiter in the current dispute. Fortunately, it died in committee and might not have gotten a signature even if it passed. Gov. Jerry Brown has been supportive of charter schools.

“We are high-performing public schools serving nearly 20,000 students who are mostly students of color in communities with limited access to free, high-quality education options like the ones our schools provide,” declared leaders of LA charter schools in a Nov. 1 media statement. They noted that some of their schools “have been recognized as among the best in the nation” by the U.S. and California departments of education and US News & World Report.

Critics of public schools often note that they put bureaucratic concerns above the education of children. That’s exactly what we’re seeing here, isn’t it? The LAUSD staff has recommended shutting down these schools – not because of any educational problems, but because the charter-school operators are chafing at a set of heavy-handed and bureaucratic rules.

Seriously, who would accept a set of rules that gives one side the freedom to change the rules at any time? “It would be irresponsible for me to include language in our school charter that would include policies that the district hasn’t even invented yet,” said Emilio Pack, CEO of the Stem Preparatory Schools, which are involved in the LAUSD dispute.

While some of the district-approved language requirements are reasonable and not the source of any contention, others go too far. The rules allow for endless investigations, sap time and energy from the classroom and leave the kids and teachers with constant anxiety, as they worry about whether they will have a school to attend the next semester.

Charters thrive because they are freed from the edict-driven, bureaucratic and union-controlled model. Expecting them to thrive while being under the thumb of LAUSD’s sprawling bureaucracy is like expecting an innovative tech firm to succeed while being controlled by the NSA. It’s not a game of chicken, but a game of control. It’s time for such nonsense to end.

Steven Greenhut is contributing editor for the California Policy Center where this perspective originated. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

Reformers Achieve School Board Shakeup in Los Angeles

Los-Angeles-Unified-School-District-LAUSDLike many big-city school systems, the Los Angeles Unified School District is in disarray. On track for a graduation rate of 49 percent last June, the district instituted “a “credit-recovery plan,” which allows students to take crash courses on weekends and holidays to make up for classes they failed or missed. Combined with the elimination of the California High School Exit Examination, the classes, which many claimed were short on content, raised the district’s graduation rate to 75 percent practically overnight. In 2015, only in five fourth-graders in Los Angeles performed at or above “proficient” in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Due to out-migration and the proliferation of charter schools, student enrollment in the district—now about 500,000—has dropped nearly 250,000 since 2004.

Fiscally, the situation is no better. In December, LAUSD Chief Financial Officer Megan Reilly told the school board that the district may not be able to meet its financial obligations because it faces a cumulative deficit of $1.46 billion through the 2018-2019 school year. While the deficit figure has been disputed in some quarters, there’s no doubt that the district is facing a daunting budgetary crisis.

Many of L.A.’s education woes can be traced to its school board and the United Teachers of Los Angeles union, which has controlled the board for years. And that’s why what happened on May 6 is so remarkable. Two reformers—Nick Melvoin, a former inner-city middle school teacher who lost his job due to union-backed seniority rules, and Kelly Gonez, currently a charter school science teacher—were elected to the LAUSD board. Reformers now constitute a majority of the seven-member governing body in America’s second-largest city.

Melvoin, especially, was vocal in his campaign that the school district needed a major shakeup, calling for more charter schools. He also stressed the need for fiscal reform, including a reworking of the district’s out-of-control pension and health-care obligations. His opponent, sitting board president Steve Zimmer, said in February that the election was about “losing children to the charter movement.” Zimmer garnered 47.5 percent of the vote against Melvoin and two other candidates in the March election, but he needed 50 percent to avoid a run-off in May.

Not only did the young Turks (Melvoin is 31 and Gonez 28) defeat the unions’ candidates; they also raised more money than their opponents, a rarity in school-board elections, where teachers’ unions historically outspend their challengers. But this time, the unions could not compete with the likes of philanthropist Eli Broad, who donated $450,000 to the campaign, and former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, who contributed over $2 million. Additionally, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings donated nearly $7 million since last September to CCSA Advocates, the political wing of the California Charter School Association, which spent nearly $3 million on the school board election.

On the union side, United Teachers Los Angeles was the big spender, pitching in about $4.13 million, according to city filings. But much of this money came from the UTLA’s national partners: the American Federation of Teachers gave UTLA $1.2 million, and the National Education Association contributed $700,000.

The spending disparity and resulting defeat did not sit well with the unions. The NEA speciously claimed that parents and educators were pitted against “a group of out-of-town billionaires,” an ironic charge for a Washington, D.C.-based organization to make. According to its latest Labor Department filing, the NEA sent money to Colorado, Georgia, Maine, and other states in 2016 in attempts to sway voters, donating nearly $27 million in all. And besides, the NEA’s charge was wrong. The bulk of the reformers’ donations came from three Californians—Broad and Riordan are Angelenos and Hastings lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

In a press release, California Teachers Association President Eric Heins reiterated the NEA message about billionaire donations and, alluding to charter schools, added, “public education should be about kids, not profits.” Heins and other union leaders sound this theme constantly, though there is no evidence to support the claim that anyone is getting rich off of charter schools: the California Charter School Association reports that out of the state’s 1,200 charter schools, only six are organized as limited-liability corporations.

“We will fight against privatizing our public schools and against creating ‘separate and unequal’ for our kids,” said UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl—and he’s eager for the fight to begin. In anticipation of the upcoming June 30 expiration of the teachers’ contract, Caputo-Pearl told his union’s leadership last year that, “the next year-and-a-half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018. There simply may be no other way to protect our health benefits and to shock the system into investing in the civic institution of public education.”

With the June 30 deadline looming, and Melvoin and Gonez set to be sworn in on the school board the next day, the fireworks you hear coming from L.A. on July 4 may come only in part from patriotic celebrations. The Los Angeles school district has distinguished itself by poorly educated students, a dubious graduation rate, shrinking enrollment, a serious financial shortfall, and a zealous teachers’ union leader who, more than anything, wants to maintain—and in fact increase—his union’s power, even if it takes a “state crisis” to do so. Should UTLA succeed, it will be a disaster for children, their parents, and the already beleaguered taxpayer.

Teachers Unions Losing Long War Over Parental Choice

LAUSD school busSupporters of charter schools, homeschooling and other forms of school choice are so used to fighting in the trenches against the state’s muscular teachers unions that they often forget how much progress they’ve made in the last decade or so. Recent events have shown the degree of progress, even if they still face an uphill — and increasingly costly — battle.

The big news came from a local school-district race, although it wasn’t just any school district but the second-largest one in the nation. Charter-school supporters won two school board seats (there’s still some vote counting in one of them) in the massive Los Angeles Unified School District, and handily disposed of the union-allied board president. The race was followed nationally, and set the record for the most money spent on a school-board race in the United States, ever.

The total cost was estimated at $15 million, with charter supporters spending $9.7 million, according to estimates from the Los Angeles Times. Typically, choice supporters get eaten alive by the teachers’-union spending juggernaut. It’s usually good news if our side can at least raise enough money to get the message out, but it’s a shocker — in a pleasant way — to find the charter folks nearly doubled the spending of the union candidates.

Various reformers, including Netflix cofounder and Democrat Reed Hastings, invested serious money in the race. He donated $7 million to one charter group, the Times reported. Another top donor was former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican, who spent more than $2 million. Once again, we saw that this was not some right-wing attack on unions. Victory didn’t come cheap, but it’s hard to understate the importance, from a reform perspective, of having a major school board run by a pro-charter majority.

LAUSD’s school Board President Steve Zimmer led the board in March to make a controversial — and largely symbolic — vote in favor of one of the more noxious school-union-backed bills to get a hearing in the state Capitol. Some charter supporters say Senate Bill 808 could be the death knell for most of the state’s charter schools, yet Zimmer’s support for it appears to have badly damaged his re-election chances. That’s another good-news event.

SB 808 is a brazen attempt to bring charter schools under the total control of local school districts, many of which are hostile to their very existence. According to the Senate bill analysis, “This bill requires all charter school petitions to be approved by the governing board of the school district in which the charter school is located, prohibits a charter school from locating outside its authorizer’s boundaries, and limits the current charter appeal process to claims of procedural violations.”

If educators wanted to create a charter school within any district in California and that district is run by a union-controlled school board that hates charters, then there would no longer will be any real workaround if the bill passes. That’s because the bill would wipe out appeals to the county and state level, except for some minor procedural matters.

Furthermore, the bill would let school boards decommission or reject charter schools if they are a financial burden. As the 74 Million blog reports, “that argument could be made about any charter, as state funds follow students as they leave school districts.” The bill allows the board to revoke a school’s charter upon a variety of broad findings, including any improper use of funds or “sustained departure” from “measurably successful practices,” or “failure to improve pupil outcomes across multiple state and school priorities…”

So, one instance of improper use of funds could shut down a school. Imagine if that standard were applied to the LAUSD itself, given its scandals. Charters succeed because they have the freedom to have a “sustained departure” from the failed union-controlled teaching policies. Under this bill, the core of their success could be cause for their shut down. And no school can always improve pupil outcomes in every category. These things take time, and measurements can be subject to interpretation.

In other words, the bill would place the fate of California’s charter schools in the hands of those most committed to their destruction. Given that the makeup of school boards can change every election, it would destroy any security parents could have in these schools: one successful union board election could mean the beginning of the end for the school, as union-backed boards use these new “tools” to dismantle the competition.

But there is good news. The bill was recently shelved, turned into one of those two-year bills that is technically alive but going nowhere fast. The Democrats control the state Capitol and the California Teachers’ Association arguably is the most powerful force under the dome, but many Democrats representing low-income districts aren’t about to mess with successful charters.

In other words, charter schools have come into their own, and we’re probably well past the point that the unions could so directly stomp them. They’ll do what they can to harass and hobble them, but such frontal attacks remain symbolic. And the courts continue to have their say, and frequently end up siding with the charter-school movement.

For instance, in late April the California Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of Anaheim parents who want to use the state’s parent-trigger law to turn a traditional public elementary school into a charter school. Under the trigger law, a vote by 50-percent of the student body’s parents can force low-performing schools to change the administration or staff, or revamp themselves into a publicly funded charter with more teaching flexibility.

The school district was adamantly against the change and made various challenges to a 2015 court decision approving the trigger. This is another victory for charter schools in California, although it has to be dispiriting to parents who have to continually fight in the courtroom while their kids get older. It’s been two years since the court approved changes at the school, which already has delayed improved education for two more class years.

But the court’s decision is still encouraging news, as the cultural sands shift in favor of educational alternatives, especially for low-income kids.

California candidates already are lining up for the 2018 gubernatorial race to replace Jerry Brown, who has been friendly to charters. One of the candidates is Delaine Eastin. She’s a close ally of the teachers’ unions. In the early 2000s, when she served as the superintendent of public instruction, Eastin tried to essentially outlaw homeschooling throughout the state.

California’s education code doesn’t directly mention homeschooling. The state’s compulsory education law mentions only an exemption for “children who are being instructed in a private full-time day school by persons capable of teaching … .” Homeschooling parents have long embraced a state-approved work around: They register as small private schools with their respective county boards of education.

Under Eastin’s leadership, however, those homeschools were required to file with the state Department of Education rather than the counties. And then Eastin sent a letter to district officials explaining that homeschooling as it is generally understood (parents without a teaching credential who teach their kids at home) “is not authorized in California, and children receiving homeschooling of this kind are in violation of the state’s truancy laws.”

Yet I talked to Eastin recently and she said she recanted her position long ago after getting quite an education from homeschooling parents. She even described herself as a supporter of charter schools. As with everything, we must follow Ronald Reagan’s advice for dealing with the Soviet Union (“trust, but verify”). But what does it say when one of the most dogged allies of unionized public schools now takes a position acknowledging the importance of parental choice?

It says that we’re making progress. It’s frustrating, plodding and expensive. But such progress should keep charter supporters encouraged as they head into the next round of battles.

This column was first published by the California Policy Center.

Los Angeles Charter School Advocates Win School Board Majority

LAUSD school busCharter school advocates in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) won a major victory Tuesday as two of their candidates won seats on the school board, giving them the majority.

Steve Zimmer, president of the LAUSD – the nation’s second-largest school district – lost in District 4 to teacher and attorney Nick Melvoin. Kelly Gonez also won a tight race in District 6 over Imelda Padilla, who was backed by the teachers’ unions.

Gonez and Melvoin will join incumbents Monica Garcia and Ref Rodriguez, creating the first-ever four-member majority of charter-school supporters on the board, reports the CBS local affiliate.

The school board races involved millions of dollars in campaign spending, the Los Angeles Times reports, with the candidates expressing frustration at times over the amount of outside spending from charter school advocate groups and unions making an impact on the campaigns.

According to the Times report:

Outside groups funded by charter advocates painted Zimmer as a charter school foe. Anti-Zimmer mailers characterized him as a gun-happy militant, a protector of pedophiles and the mastermind of the school district’s iPads-for-all debacle.

Groups bankrolled by public employee unions tried to link Melvoin, 31, to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Trump, both of whom are extremely unpopular in Los Angeles.

Neither of these portrayals were accurate. Zimmer has voted many times to approve new charter schools and Melvoin is a Democrat who has been critical of the Trump administration’s education policies.

The unions reportedly spent some $2.5 million on Zimmer’s campaign and more than $2.34 million on that of Padilla. Charter school promoters spent upward of $5.69 million on Melvoin’s campaign and $3.3 million on that of Gonez.

Charter school advocate Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings – a Democrat – donated $5 million to California Charter Schools Association Advocates, which managed much of the spending for the charter candidates.

LAUSD has the highest number of charter schools and charter students of any other school district, though charters still only represent 16 percent of enrollment.

This piece was originally published by Breitbart.com/California

Teachers Union Assault on Charter Schools

school education studentsWith 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.

California charter schools involved in multiple political battles

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

A major front in the perpetual war between California’s educational establishment and school reform groups is the role of charter schools, which function outside the traditional structure and are semi-free to experiment with new methods of teaching.

Like the larger conflict, the charter school battle is waged in multiple venues – within school districts, in the Legislature, in the courts and, ultimately, in the electoral arena.

It pits charter school advocates, who range from billionaire Eli Broad to immigrant parents, against the California Teachers Association and union-allied school officials.

It is almost entirely a battle within the Democratic Party, as this year’s elections in a number of legislative and school board elections will demonstrate anew. Broad and other wealthy reformers are backing Democrats who agree with them on charters and other reform issues while the CTA and its allies have their own slates of candidates. …

Teachers unions trying to take back O.C. board

As reported by the Orange County Register:

In addition to making known their presidential preferences, Orange County voters on June 7 also will make critical decisions impacting the continued on a path of supporting greater parental choice in public education and jump-starting education reforms in local schools.

Orange County Board of Education Trustees Kenneth Williams and Robert Hammond are seeking re-election. The board has become a model for championing choice and opportunity for students and taxpayers alike. Williams and Hammond served as the minority on the five-member board until the previous election cycle, when they were joined by Linda Lindholm, forming a refreshingly candid and courageous new majority.

Not beholden to county teachers unions or other special interests, they saw to it that petitions were no longer summarily denied to grant rights to independent charter schools seeking to start schools in Orange County. This switch came much to the chagrin of teachers unions, and even some school board members, because it meant an end to a default geographically based monopoly for school enrollment. …

Click here to read the full story

Former L.A. charter school leader fined for conflict of interest

As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

A former local charter school operator has agreed to pay a $16,000 fine for misconduct that includes using public education funds to lease her own buildings.

Under a tentative settlement with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, Kendra Okonkwo acknowledges that she improperly used her official position “to influence governmental decisions in which she had a financial interest,” according to documents posted Monday by the state agency.

The settlement or “stipulation” notes two instances of wrongdoing: establishing leases for the school in two buildings that Okonkwo owned and arranging for public funds to pay for renovations to these structures …

Click here to read the full story.

Educating Students Not #1 Priority of L.A. School Board and Teachers Union

LAUSD school busOn February 11, LA School Report released an internal Los Angeles Unified School District document which stated that just 54 percent of seniors in L.A. are on track to graduate. The drop off from 74 percent last year was immediately attributed to the new “A through G” requirements, which ensure that graduating students are ready for acceptance into California public universities.

The rather lame, “This is the first year of the plan, so we are just getting the kinks out” excuse does not hold water. The A-G plan was initially formulated in 2005, but the LAUSD school board didn’t pay much attention to it. So instead of ramping up the rigor, they decided that in 2017 students could pass with a grade of “D,” instead of the “C” as was in the original plan. (This year’s class had been green-lighted for a “D” passing grade all along.)

Oh but wait, there is some “good” news. Due to the district’s “credit recovery plan” – allowing students to take crash courses on weekends, holidays, etc. – the graduation rate has just been upgraded to a less cataclysmic 63 percent. Yeah, 63 is better than 54, but it still stinks. And the demise of the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) has been left out of the equation. The test was killed a few months ago by the California Legislature and, worse, the legislators chose to give diplomas retroactively (going back to 2006) to students who passed their coursework but failed the test.

The exam was hardly rigorous. According to the California Department of Education website, the English–language component addressed state content standards through tenth grade and the math part of the test addressed state standards in only grades six and seven and Algebra I. Hence, whatever the graduate rate actually turns out to be in 2016, it would have been lower had the state not knocked out a test that every high school grad should be able to easily pass.

So what’s a school board to do? Simply divert attention away from the problem.

The LAUSD school board’s major agenda item of late has been to slow charter school growth. According to Sarah Angel, managing director of advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association, “We are seeing an unprecedented uptick in the recommendation of denials of charter schools.” She pointed out that the L.A. school board approved 89 percent of the charter school applications it received in 2013, but that rate has been cut in half this year. The anti-charter push came about when the board went bananas over philanthropist Eli Broad’s plan to turn half the schools in L.A. into charters. Nothing will invigorate monopolists like a little old-fashioned competition.

Not to be outdone by the school board’s turf-protection moves, the United Teachers of Los Angeles has swung into action, joining a union-led national demonstration of support for traditional public school districts. Dubbed “walk ins,” these events were led in Los Angeles by UTLA and involved parents walking into schools with their kids at the beginning of the school day on February 17. What this was supposed to accomplish is anyone’s guess.

The union also just raised its dues 30 percent, claiming more money is needed to “battle foes of traditional public education.”

Then, UTLA boss and class warfare expert Alex Caputo-Pearl began beating the tax-the-rich drum at a fever pitch. In an obvious reference to Eli Broad and some other philanthropists, he recently averred, “If billionaires want to be involved, they should not undermine programs, they should contribute their fair share in taxes.” Wondering how he knew what taxes certain individuals paid, I sent an email to Mr. Caputo-Pearl and UTLA’s communication director, inquiring which billionaires he was referring to and how much they paid in taxes. They have not deigned to respond to my query thus far. (Note to AC-P: The rich pay plenty of taxes, but 44 percent of Americans don’t pay any, and rest assured, there are no billionaires in that group.)

As if the school board and teachers union’s effort to damage charters wasn’t enough, there is a plan afoot to get an initiative on the ballot this year that would make charter schools illegal. Why? Because, according to the “Voices Against Privatizing Education” website, charters are “racist  … cherry pick students, falsify records, commit enrollment fraud, close down community schools, destroy jobs, bust up unions and segregate students.” Not surprisingly this bundle of outright lies has the backing of several teachers unions and individual union leaders.

You see, charter schools are not being singled out for demolition because they haven’t worked; they are on the radar of the school board and the union precisely because they have been successful. At the same time that so many students in L.A.’s traditional schools are failing to meet graduation standards, students from the same demographic groups are thriving in charter schools. By the time they’ve graduated, students at charter schools are over three times more likely to have completed courses needed for college admission than students at traditional public schools.

Also, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) conducted an analysis of charter schools in LAUSD in 2014 and found that its students gain significantly more learning time than their peers in traditional public schools. Among its findings:

  • Charter school students gain 79 more days of learning than their traditional school peers in math, as well as 50 additional days of learning in reading.
  • Latino students gain 72 more days of learning in math and 43 extra days in reading.
  • Latino students living in poverty gain 115 additional days of learning in math and 58 additional days in reading.
  • African American students gain 14 extra days of learning in both reading and math.
  • African American students living in poverty gain 58 additional days of learning in math and 36 additional days in reading.

Evelyn Macias, mother of Julia Macias, one of nine student plaintiffs behind the Vergara lawsuit, recently penned an op-ed for LA School Report, in which she wrote:

We need to look at state policies, legislation and labor agreements that have, over the course of decades, eroded and diminished the rights of children, low-income working families, and ALL families, by claiming the higher moral ground for employees, while much of our leadership remains silent.

Our children are falling through the cracks, while we stand and watch. Who besides their parents and student advocacy groups will step up?

Who besides parents and certain advocacy groups? Who, indeed? Certainly not the obstructionist school board and teachers union. They are intent on protecting turf and maintaining their monopoly. Educating children is far down on their to-do list. Shame on them.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

A Half-Charter School District for L.A.?

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

Eli Broad made his fortune in construction and real estate. But he’s building a legacy as a philanthropist and an education reformer. In September, the Broad, a $140 million museum of contemporary art, opened in downtown Los Angeles at the corner of a revitalizing Grand Avenue and 2nd Street, across from the Walt Disney Concert Hall. That same month, the Los Angeles Times published a leaked memo detailing Broad’s proposal to revitalize L.A.’s sclerotic public school system. Working under the auspices of his family foundation, Broad would gather some of the biggest names in private philanthropy — Gates, Walton, Ahmanson, Bloomberg, Annenberg and Hewlett, as well as David Geffen, Kirk Kerkorian and Elon Musk — to open 260 new charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District over an eight-year period, with an enrollment goal of at least 130,000 students. The memo discusses how to raise $490 million to pay for the effort, which includes recruiting teachers, acquiring real estate, providing outreach to parents and navigating political battles. If the octogenarian Broad succeeds, half of L.A. Unified’s schools would be charters by the mid-2020s.

Naturally, L.A.’s education establishment detests the idea. The LAUSD board’s president, Steve Zimmer, denounced Broad’s plan as “a strategy to bring down LAUSD.” In November, board member Scott Schmerelson pushed a resolution announcing the board’s opposition to the Broad Foundation’s plan by name. Later, Schmerelson changed the language to say the board opposed any “external initiatives that seek to reduce public education to an educational marketplace and our children to market shares while not investing in District-wide programs and strategies that benefit every student.” As an L.A. Times editorial pointed out, by that standard, “the board would have to oppose many of its own programs — magnet schools, programs to teach students fluency in English and alternative schools for students with chronic behavioral problems.” (In response, Broad’s new educational nonprofit expanded its proposal to support traditional public schools, including pilots, magnets, and other high-performing schools that serve low-income children.)

Former LAUSD superintendent Ramon C. Cortines was more charitable. At a forum with Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez earlier this month, Cortines didn’t ascribe ill motives to Broad, but rather suggested the billionaire was ill advised. “I think somebody brought him an elixir without having it be tested to see if it will really do what it is promised to do,” he said. But United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl was predictably unsparing in his vitriol. “Billionaires should not be running public education,” he said. The union boss also claimed that charter schools are unregulated and “deregulation doesn’t work.” Not to be outdone, retired kindergarten teacher Cheryl Ortega groused, “Charter schools are destroying public education.”

Broad’s plan is ambitious, to be sure. In addition to fighting the school board and union, Broad and his foundation allies would need considerable community support to succeed. Charters already make up a sizable portion of schools in the district: nearly a quarter of LAUSD students — about 150,866 students — are enrolled in 282 charter schools from San Pedro to the San Fernando Valley. Another 40,000 students languish on waiting lists. The demand is there; it’s the supply that’s lacking, though procuring facilities for 260 new schools would take some doing.

California’s 1992 charter school law gives local districts the power to approve or deny charter applications, though applications cannot be denied without good reason, such as questionable management or shady finances. However, the district doesn’t have the last word. Charter applicants have the option to appeal first to the county board of education, and then to the state board of education, if necessary.

A closer look at many of the antagonists’ complaints reveals less anger about billionaires’ meddling in education than envy that Broad’s largess doesn’t extend to traditional public schools. But the schools already receive plenty of money. Official per-pupil spending in Los Angeles is $13,490, which is greater than the national average and doesn’t include expenses such as the cost of building and maintaining schools, interest on various payments, bonds and so forth. When those expenditures get added in, per-pupil spending comes to about $30,000 per year. If the new California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance (CAASPP) scores are any indication, the money is not being well-spent. Only a third of the city’s students performed at grade level in English, while about a quarter performed at grade level or better in math. The district’s charter school students far outpaced their peers in traditional schools.

Don’t believe the anti-reform hype about lax regulation and looming public school destruction, either. Charter schools are public schools, funded by tax dollars and subject to regulation — just not to the same extent as traditional public schools, which are strangled by bulky union contracts that put seniority ahead of competence. Broad’s plan anticipates that 5,000 union members could be put out of work and replaced with staff hired through Teach For America, TNTP (formerly the New Teacher Project), and other groups that work with young instructors. The proposal makes no mention of recruiting teachers from within L.A. Unified.

Clearly, hundreds of new charter schools would find it difficult to fill their ranks with newbies. And therein lies an important but unstated aspect of the Broad plan. Those rehired from the current crop of experienced teachers would be the good and even great ones working now because they are qualified, not because they are protected by the state’s seniority statute. Needless to say, Caputo-Pearl has a different take. “The charters are specifically looking for educators who have not had the experience of being in a union,” he said, “which means that, by and large, they’re looking for teachers who may find it more challenging to raise their voice about curriculum or school conditions.” That’s absurd, of course. Where is it written that that only unionized teachers speak up about “curriculum and school conditions”?

Some of the naysayers claim that a half-charter district would leave too many children behind, but other cities’ experience suggests otherwise. Washington, D.C., and Detroit have moved in recent years to a 50 percent charter model. New Orleans may offer the best evidence of how charter schools can serve a low-income and underprivileged population. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Crescent City in 2005, a much more vibrant charter system emerged in the aftermath. Today, 92 percent of the city’s students are enrolled in a charter school. Ten years ago, 62 percent of schools in Orleans Parish were failing. Today, just 7 percent of schools are failing. During the same period, the portion of city schools with students performing at or above grade level rose from 35 percent to 62 percent. As it happens, Paul Pastorek, the former superintendent of public education in Louisiana who helped oversee the turnaround, has been appointed to lead Broad’s effort in L.A.

Philanthropy has the power to transform institutions for the better. More charters in Los Angeles would certainly disrupt the dismal status quo—likely to the advantage of good teachers, their students, and taxpayers. Opponents see Broad’s proposal as a way of “bringing down LAUSD,” but building up alternatives to a dysfunctional system may be exactly what L.A.’s children need.