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Saturday, October 24, 2015
Charter Schools Fuel Inequality and Hinder Reform
by Jimmy Franco
Charter school interests led by the Broad Foundation have recently unveiled an expansion plan called “The Great Public Schools Now”. This plan is proposing a huge increase of privately operated schools within the Los Angeles School District with the creation of 260 new charters during the next eight years at a cost of 490 million-dollars. The approval and implementation of such a plan would eventually double the number of LAUSD students attending privately operated charter schools and this would comprise almost half of the LAUSD’s students. According to this plan such a massive expansion of charters would also require the services of about 5000 teachers to staff these new schools, however, the
Real estate billionaire Eli Broad and his charter foundation want to privatize half of the public schools within the LAUSD.
proposal makes no mention of recruiting any teachers presently employed by LA Unified who are unionized and generally more experienced. Instead, this Broad Foundation plan proposes to hire recent college graduates as its instructors who will be trained by ‘Teach for America’and other private groups. These young college graduates and prospective charter teachers are generally inexperienced, paid less and non-union, all of which keep business costs down for the privately operated charters. If the Broad plan is approved and implemented, this loss of tens of thousands of students to these new charter schools could possibly result in the elimination of thousands of jobs for LA District’s teachers, administrators and non-teaching employees. The reaction of the present school board to this proposal has been mixed. Charters are businesses that privately operate public schools and use public school sites and tax monies to fund their for-profit operations. The first privately operated LAUSD charters were created and approved during the 1990’s by the school board which was under heavy pressure to reform the District’s schools. The Board’s rationale for this action was that the charters could provide a choice for parents and students to attend a school with a better educational program or a safer campus instead of their traditional home school. Rather than comprehensively reform and fix the regular schools at that time, this critical Board decision to approve charters would create an escape valve for academically motivated students to eventually leave their traditional campuses and open the door to a steady increase over the years in the privatization of the District’s public schools. In addition to the charter schools, the LAUSD had already created magnet schools during the 1970’s as a result of an earlier anti-segregation lawsuit filed against the District called “Crawford vs Board of Education, Los Angeles”. This successful lawsuit compelled the District to integrate its students and subsequently magnet schools for voluntary integration were created as a means to do so. These special magnet integration programs offered programs in science, math or other specialties in order to entice white parents to enroll their children into these integrated schools and thus bring the LAUSD into compliance with the Crawford court order. After almost four decades, these specialized magnet schools many of which are for gifted students, still exist even though their original intent of integrating large numbers of students is no longer feasible as white flight and a change in demographics have left the LAUSD student population at over 85 percent minority. Both tiers of Magnets and charters also have the benefit of being able to carefully select the students that they admit.
Two rival political-economic groups have left the District in a gridlock
Over the years the LA District has periodically attempted to reform its educational system and then subsequently failed to follow through with any thorough and systematic change. Since the time of the East Los Angeles high school walkouts in 1968, there have been discussions and proposals for reforming the giant LA District which serves close to six hundred and fifty thousand students. Over the last two decades, parents, students and the community have heard and experienced quick fix reform proposals from various Board members such as “School Based Management”, “LEARN”, splitting up the District, decentralized mini-districts and so on, all of which were ultimately abandoned and not mentioned anymore as if they never existed. Last year, two other major blunders occurred within the LAUSD that have created even more turmoil. The first was the
The struggle for political control over the school board by two economic factions
undermines democracy & reform.
botched 1.3 billion dollar effort to supply all of the District’s students with expensive iPad computers which quickly led to widespread problems due to software dysfunction, cost overruns and a faulty system for keeping track of these expensive gadgets. In addition, a new and expensive District-wide student record system named MISIS was instituted in 2014, but it quickly collapsed and caused a year’s worth of systemic chaos as student’s records and grades could not be retrieved which resulted in a loss of valuable learning time. The responsibility for spontaneously approving both of these policies lies with the school board as these decisions were not very well thought out nor carefully planned and ended up wasting millions of dollars worth of scarce educational funds. Various factors over the years have blocked a much needed comprehensive reform of the LA school system. There has been a lack of consistent leadership in the past from the various superintendents as two of them consisted of an ex-governor of Colorado and an ex-navy admiral. John Deasy, the latest superintendent to leave was simply appointed into the position by the school board without a vote being taken by that body and was abruptly removed last year after being scapegoated by the Board for the iPad and MISIS disasters. One of the major factors that has hindered fundamental reform efforts within the LAUSD has been the periodic changes and erratic leadership of the Board as this policymaking body is divided into factions who represent and vote in accordance with the rival interest groups that finance their electoral campaigns. Previously, these special interest groups consisted of individual millionaire reform advocates such as ex-Mayor Richard Riordan who once financed and elected a Board that would do his bidding against the rival teacher’s union UTLA. This was later followed by another group supported by ex-Mayor Villaraigosa which also vied for Board dominance with UTLA. Presently, the power struggle being waged for control of the school board is between the corporate sponsored charter schools and UTLA who both spend millions of dollars to get their handpicked candidates elected. Economics are at the root of these elections and power struggle to politically dominate the school board and its policy decisions as millions of dollars are at stake in regard to salaries, benefits, favored programs and particularly the funding of charter schools. Meanwhile, the parents, students and residents of these communities cannot successfully run grassroots candidates to represent their districts in a democratic manner as they do not have the millions of dollars to compete with the two major political factions. A summary of the major Board decisions and actions taken over the years shows a definite trend of indecisiveness which leads to an objective conclusion that if the past efforts of the various school board members to comprehensively reform and substantively improve the District’s schools had actually been implemented, then there would be no necessity for charter schools to presently exist. This is a clear case of cause and effect as the corrosive effect of these past failures to enact reform is the present and growing privatization of the District’s schools.
Why are students and parents abandoning the traditional schools?
The principal reason why many parents choose to move their children out of a traditional neighborhood school is that they are dissatisfied with the low qualitative level of the educational programs offered by them. This growing trend to vote with their feet is particularly true in many inner-city schools which are primarily attended by lower-income and minority students. Some charters provide good programs while others do not, but for many parents they may offer a more secure campus for their children. Contributing to this problem within the traditional inner-city schools is that many of them have a high turnover in teachers due to lay-offs and transfers. A large number of them are also staffed by new and inexperienced teachers who tend to leave the District within five years due to job instability, poor work conditions and pay. In many instances, ‘need-to-place’ administrators and teachers are also sent into exile at these schools which essentially means that these District employees were transferred out of another school for sub-par work performance. Meanwhile, many older and more experienced teachers at inner-city schools eventually transfer to a more settled suburban school within the District with less problems or which is closer to their home. Other factors that contribute to this rejection of the regular schools by parents are run-down facilities, high dropout rates, low student test scores, less parent involvement and a lack of involvement by parent groups. While many charter
The right to a free public school education needs to be strengthened and
programs are an improvement, there are numerous ones that do not function well as they are plagued by problems with their young teaching staffs due to inexperience, low salaries and a lack of benefits, job security and union rights. Many parents who are more assertive and dissatisfied about their children’s education will usually vote with their feet and opt for a new educational program offered by charters. This is not to say that other parents are not as concerned about their children’s education, however, many of them may have to work long hours and don’t have the time to navigate the various educational options that are available especially if they are non-English speaking. Many parents simply trust that the professional staff at the local traditional school will do a good job at educating their kids. The primary concern of other parents is to merely find a secure campus for their children as charters have the ability to hand-pick who they enroll. This means in practice that they can reject any students with behavioral problems, non-English learners and other children with learning disabilities. Also, the children of families who were not accepted at a Magnet school may also choose a charter as the alternative second choice rather than attending their regular home school. .
A three-tier system of educational inequality has been established
Past efforts to thoroughly reform the huge LA District have failed due to the resistance of vested interests with various motives. There were once well-organized groups within the LAUSD such as ‘Bus Stop’ who were opposed to integration as well as other persistent obstructionists within the District who still want to maintain the status quo within the system in order to defend their economic interests and avoid any increase in oversight and work performance accountability. During the last three decades, a lack of stable and consistent leadership within the District has been at times compounded by a lack of educational expertise on the part of certain
All students deserve an equal & qualitative public education and not discrimination.
superintendents and incoming board members and these defects have undermined any strategic planning and implementation of consistent reforms from being carried out. Presently, this situation has deteriorated due to the factional in-fighting within the present Board. The ex-Superintendent John Deasy was dismissed in 2014 after being blamed for the debacle created by the disorganized roll out of the iPads and the MISIS system. A year later, this continuing instability in regard to leadership and formulating educational policies has continued as the LAUSD is still being led by interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines as the selection of his successor is still unknown. This weak situation that the District presently finds itself in has created an opportunity for privately-run charters to take the offensive with their new Broad proposal to expand the power of their profit-driven schools over the children of the LAUSD. The reaction of the present board members to this charter plan has been mixed. In essence, the District has a flawed academic and organizational structure that consists of a three-tier school system with magnets and charter schools at the top of the pyramid who can handpick and admit more academically motivated students. Then, there is the lower and largest tier of traditional schools for the rest of the students which includes the majority of English learners and students with special needs or problems. This present three-tier system essentially creates a tracking system and brain-drain that flows from the traditional schools with regular programs to the top two-tier magnets and charters. This siphoning off of higher-achieving students and their parents makes it even harder to improve and fix the educational programs at their home schools that they have left. Some regular schools are doing a good job at educating their students, yet, their task becomes much more difficult due to budget cuts and many of their academically motivated students and supportive parents being drawn away to the top two tiers of charter and magnet schools. Parents cannot be blamed for wanting a better school for their children, yet, this brain-drain of students and active parents makes a reform effort at the abandoned regular schools much more problematic to achieve.
The cherry-picking of students is discriminatory and undermines reform efforts
Recently, a spokesperson for privately operated charters in Los Angeles publicly boasted that their schools have higher test scores than the traditional LAUSD schools. This of course is simply a result of being able to handpick their students and deny entrance to the large number of English learners and special education students within the District. The rationale and convenient excuse given by charter representatives for excluding these struggling students is that they do not offer nor want to offer such special and expensive services for these young people with special needs. Ramon Cortines, the interim Superintendent of the LAUSD defensively countered this boast about test scores in a silly tit-for-tat public exchange by stating that the District’s magnet schools have even higher test scores than the charters! These two top educational tiers comprised of charters and magnets are doing well on test scores again due to their careful selection of higher performing students. But, what about the educational disparity that exists for the other half-million students who are abandoned and left behind in the majority lower-tier of traditional schools where a good number have sub-par programs.
Don’t abandon traditional schools, fix them and guarantee educational equality for all
The root-cause of this educational inequality within the LAUSD and other school districts which needs to be urgently addressed is that many of these schools have low academic achievement and test scores along with high dropout rates, and this situation is made worse by the continuing policy of social promotion. Confronting and resolving this issue of educational inequality within the LA
Public schools are the property of the people & need to be reformed & not abandoned.
District requires an improvement in the training of new and present teachers in curriculum development and teaching methodology. In addition, the implementation of a much more rigorous multi-faceted evaluation system for administrators and teachers is needed that should be based primarily upon aspects of their work performance rather than heavily depending on erratic test scores. Stricter oversight and job accountability and the necessary remediation of both administrators and teachers who need improvement should be implemented along with smaller class size, increased funding and well deserved salary increases. These changes require more teacher input and funding, but more importantly, they require a comprehensive reform plan along with the political will and perseverance of leadership to overcome the obstructionists and carry it out. Lastly, school board elections need to be changed so that they are conducted through public financing as this would prevent moneyed interests with millions of dollars to spend from presently deciding who will represent and make decisions for the various school district communities as is now being done. While many people do not like to talk about this problem, the present electoral system for electing Board members is undemocratic and unrepresentative as qualified community members who wish to run for a seat are essentially disenfranchised due to lacking the half-million dollars and insider connections that are presently required to fund such a successful school board campaign. Thus, public financing of board elections is the only way to level the playing field and democratize this electoral process which is now controlled by the two major political-economic factions. In summary, the majority of teachers and administrators within the District’s traditional schools are doing their best to educate the children with the resources that they have as there are many traditional educational programs that are successful such as the Pilot schools and others in more affluent neighborhoods. The schools that are broken need to be fixed and not be abandoned to the economic interests of the private sector and profit-minded charter companies as the right to a free and
All administrators and teachers need to be held accountable for their work performance.
qualitative public education for every child has been historically fought for and should be defended. Public schools are not businesses as their educational programs should be driven by the quest on the part of teachers and students for academic excellence and enhancement of children’s minds rather than by profit-driven charter schools from the private sector. This steady encroachment upon our public schools by charters who squeeze their employees with low salaries, a lack of benefits and rights and objectively discriminate against non-English speakers and students with special needs must be resisted. Presently, there are two erroneous positions in regard to this existing problem of unequal education within the LAUSD: there are those who propose the steady abandonment of our traditional public schools to privately-operated charters rather than attempt to fix them; and then there is the other extreme within the District, which consists of certain employees who obstruct reform and refuse to fundamentally change our schools for the better which makes the problem even worse. Public employee unions and others opposed to this Broad charter expansion plan need to counter it with an honest and thoroughgoing plan for educational reform of the LAUSD schools and a change in the present status quo. To simply say no to charters without simultaneously proposing a comprehensive and substantive plan for fundamentally changing the school system will not solve the problem and is self-defeating. If this is not done, then parents and students will continue to vote with their feet and opt for charter schools.