The proposal by the Broad Foundation to significantly increase the number of charter schools in Los Angeles over the next 10 years is being discussed and scrutinized by policymakers and the general public. It should be. If approved by the school board, the proposal could radically alter the face of public education in Los Angeles. That is perhaps the only issue that both opponents and supporters agree upon.
While Los Angeles is currently the epicenter of the fight over charters, similar battles are being waged in cities throughout California and the country.
Yet, in the highly polarized debate over charter schools, many of the most important and complex issues do not receive the attention they warrant and deserve. In part, this is because the debate over charter schools is typically presented in unreasonably stark terms: advocates portray them as a panacea that will “save” public education; opponents characterize them as a Trojan horse that will be used to privatize and dismantle public education.
Close examination of charter schools reveals that the issues are more complex. Throughout the country, charter schools are incredibly diverse in their character and quality. Some find ways to limit access to disadvantaged children, or have been deliberately designed to segregate and serve the affluent, while others have been created with an explicit commitment to serve the most disadvantaged students. Some receive donations from wealthy philanthropists and spend considerably more per pupil than traditional public schools, while others are community-based and get by with considerably less. Some, like Green Dot, allow their teachers to form or join unions, while others actively oppose efforts at unionization.
Since charter schools are likely to be around for some time, the debate we should have over the Broad proposal, and the expansion of charter schools generally, is: what kinds of charter schools should be encouraged and what kinds should be avoided? Also, if we are serious about using charter schools as a lever to improve public education generally, what lessons should we draw from the best-performing charter and public schools and how can we make sure that these lessons are applied to public schools that serve our most disadvantaged children?
Answering both questions forces us to think more deeply about the role that policy, both local and state, should play in managing and regulating charter schools. To a large degree, the absence of thoughtful, well-conceived policy has contributed to the polarization we are witnessing in cities throughout the country. The absence of good policy is pitting parents, and in some cases teachers and students, against each other. This is not a good thing, and it limits the possibility of using charter schools as a lever for change in public education.
Charter school operators and their advocates and funders should not be expected or allowed to set admissions policies, nor should they determine where a charter school is located. However, because the controls on charter schools are weak, there are numerous cases where students perceived as hard to serve have been pushed out or excluded, where parents have been denied due process when grievances have been filed, and where the rights of teachers have been violated. There have also been several incidents of fraud and financial misconduct involving charter operators, particularly online and for-profit charters.
Furthermore, as those who have read “The Prize” by Dale Russakoff know, a great deal was promised when another wealthy philanthropist, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, donated lots of money ($100 million to schools in Newark – much of which went to consultants and charter schools) but not much was gained for the poorest children in the city. Transparency and accountability in the use of public and private funds are essential to avoid similar mistakes.
As Los Angeles citizens consider the merits and implications of the Broad proposal and the broader public weighs the prospect of allowing charter schools to expand, it would be helpful to reflect on what is presently working in public education and what role charter schools are playing on the educational landscape now. Los Angeles already has a greater number of charter schools than any other U.S. city; how have these schools affected the quality of public education in the city? Moreover, California has undertaken various versions of reform for several decades; what lessons should we extract from these costly endeavors that might help us in guiding future efforts to improve schools?
During the 1980s, George Washington High School in Los Angeles Unified was regarded as an unsafe, dysfunctional school. Under the leadership of former principal (and current board member George McKenna), the school was renamed George Washington Prep, the community was engaged so that gangs no longer posed a threat to students and the school, high-quality academic programs were added, and academic achievement increased so significantly that the school became one of the most consistent producers of African-American students who were eligible for admission to the University of California.
Similar achievements were obtained at Kennedy High School in Richmond during the same period. However, today, neither Kennedy nor Washington Prep are high-performing schools. Why? If the combination of strong leadership, community engagement, and deliberate efforts to enhance the quality of education through college prep programs, electives and extracurricular activities that are attractive to students and their families helped to turn these schools around before, why aren’t similar capacity-building strategies utilized today?
While many charter schools find ways to avoid serving the most disadvantaged children, signs of progress can be found at some that do. For example, Camino Nuevo, a chain of charter schools dedicated to serving recent immigrants and English language learners, is showing that the predictable patterns of failure that are common for such students in traditional public schools can be disrupted when teachers are well trained and parents and community are engaged as partners.
Yet, the relative success of Camino Nuevo does not mean that all charter schools are producing impressive results. In a recent conversation, a teacher who recently resigned from a KIPP school in South LA affirmed what the data shows: though the school where he taught was generally safer and more orderly, its academic outcomes were not much better than those of the traditional public schools in the neighborhood.
This is not an attack on KIPP. Several KIPP schools in other parts of the city and the state perform quite well. However, variability in the performance of KIPP schools, and the struggles they have had in serving African-American males in particular, should remind us that there are no quick fixes or bulletproof remedies for fixing public schools. Expanding access to technology (e.g., iPads), restructuring grade configuration (smaller schools), expanding access to social services (community schools), or the latest, increasing the number of charter schools, will not guarantee improvement on a broad scale. In fact, unless reforms are carried out in a thoughtful manner and guided by research to evaluate what works and what doesn’t, we will continue to see a cycle of raised expectations, wasted resources and unfulfilled promises.
What the small number of successful charter and traditional public schools serving poor communities has in common is the careful attention they pay to meeting student needs. That is what we are seeing now at the UCLA Community School, a public school in Pico Union. The school is located in a poor, densely populated neighborhood with a concentration of recent Central American immigrants and refugees. Established in 2009 through a partnership between UCLA, LAUSD and the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the school is now a model of success. Designated as a “pilot school,” it is a district school given charter-like autonomy over curriculum, budget and staffing. Since its creation, more than 200 faculty and students from UCLA have contributed more than 40,000 hours of service to the school. Today, the school sends 90 percent of its students to college, including several who were admitted last year to the University of California. That partnership is now being expanded to other schools in Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods.
Education policy in California should be designed to promote and incentivize similar partnerships with other institutions in more schools throughout the state. We have ample evidence that schools serving our poorest students can’t solve the challenges they face without higher levels of support from community partners that can address the social needs of poor children. This issue is at the heart of the lawsuit filed in August of this year against the Compton public schools. In the next few weeks the courts will decide whether “complex trauma” should be regarded as a disability and therefore require schools to do more to meet the needs of such children. If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the case could have far-reaching implications throughout California and possibly the nation.
The simple fact is we must do more to address the needs of schools serving our most disadvantaged children. Despite our budget challenges, we live in a wealthy state, home to the largest and most successful high-tech companies in the world. There is no reason why foundations, universities, nonprofits and corporations can’t be enlisted to develop creative partnerships to support our public schools more than they have in the past.
Interestingly, Los Angeles’ mayor, Eric Garcetti, and California’s governor, Jerry Brown, have been noticeably silent in the debate over the Broad proposal. This is a mistake. Certainly, they must realize that Los Angeles will never be a great city, even if it gets to host the Olympics and lands an NFL team, without much better public schools. Without demanding mayoral control or marshaling another set of sweeping reforms, these leaders could play a major role in promoting partnerships that enhance the quality of schools. They could also use the Broad proposal as an opportunity to convene well-informed discussions over the future of public education that could help in moving us beyond current bitter debates.
If Los Angles and California are to make more progress in improving public schools, any proposal for change should build on the progress that has been made rather than pretending that the entire system is flawed. We also need a vision, not unlike that which gave birth and sustained the strengths of our great system of public higher education, to bring high-quality schools to all communities.
In the spirit of informing that vision and guiding the debate over reform in a direction that will be most constructive, I would like to offer the following questions:
- If one of the advantages that charter schools have is their freedom from cumbersome district and state policies, which policies pertaining to hiring, promotion and compensation should be eliminated or altered to give traditional public schools a better chance to improve?
- Can we target public and private resources into neighborhoods where poverty is concentrated so that schools are no longer overwhelmed by the non-academic needs of children (e.g., trauma, hunger, housing instability, etc.) that invariably impact learning outcomes?
- If we are going to expand the number of charter schools, what types of additional policy controls must be put in place by the district or by the state to insure that parents have a role in school governance, that the rights of teachers and students are respected and that public funds are not misused?
- Finally, what steps must be taken to encourage greater cooperation and collaboration between charters and traditional public schools?
This is just a starting point for a critical discussion of the Broad proposal and the expansion of charter schools generally. Given how grossly underfunded public schools in Los Angeles and most of California are, it is admirable that the Broad Foundation is willing to spend its resources to improve education. However, we should not allow the size of the “gift” or the power of the interests behind it to preempt a thorough discussion of the issues this type of reform raises. Los Angeles, like most American cities, already has a school system characterized by a high degree of racial segregation and social inequality. It is essential that policy play a role in reducing these tendencies rather than exacerbating them.
The evidence is clear that concentrating our most disadvantaged students in under-resourced schools perpetuates failure. Most reforms intended to give parents and students more choice have this effect, and many charter schools do little to counter this outcome. Choice alone is not an effective solution because there simply aren’t enough high-quality schools for all children. State and local policy must play a role in countering racial and socioeconomic segregation by expanding access to high-quality, integrated schools for all children.
A vibrant system of public education requires deep engagement and support. Let’s use this proposal as an opportunity to build a constituency to support better schools for all children in Los Angeles and throughout California.
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