Credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn/EdSource

For the past year, here in California and across the country, robust policy debates about charter schools and their future have taken center stage.

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Carl Cohn

Some of this discussion stems from the recent gubernatorial and state superintendent election results, while some stems from recent teacher strikes and the perceived fiscal impact that some charters have on large urban districts in our state.

As a participant and observer in California public schools for the past half century, I’m struck by what isn’t being talked about in terms of the proverbial “elephant in the room” when it comes to charters: weak leadership in districts with the highest proportion of charters.

Let’s start with Los Angeles, the state’s largest district, where the failure to fix traditional public schools has resulted in a flourishing charter school movement in the poorest parts of the district. Expecting poor parents of color to embrace the status quo is completely unacceptable when it comes to the future of their children. This is a failure of district leadership that goes back more than two decades, and is compounded by the actions of the school board majority before the recent election of Jackie Goldberg.

A concrete example of the consistent failure to fix traditional public schools is La Salle Avenue Elementary School, which is identified as the prime exhibit in Public Counsel’s latest lawsuit against the State of California. It is called Ella T. v. State of California and focuses on the state’s failure to deliver on basic literacy skills for poor kids. The complaint indicates that only four percent of students there are proficient on the latest Smarter Balanced test results.

Against this dismal backdrop, the board then chose to hire someone like Austin Beutner, who has had absolutely no experience in the classroom or running schools, but comes from a corporate and business background. And then Beutner sent exactly the wrong signals when he hired expensive consultants from — of all places — Louisiana and Newark, where closing, repurposing and converting traditional schools to charters became the order of the day.

I don’t say this harboring some special animus toward non-traditional superintendents. When I was superintendent in Long Beach back in the 90s, one of my heroes was the late John Stanford, the Army general who became superintendent of schools in Seattle and wrote a book called “Victory in Our Schools,” in which he talked about classroom teachers as heroes and how improving schools starts and ends with supporting them.

While the debate about charters suggests that they are a threat to every urban district in our state, the information on the ground doesn’t support that faulty notion. Long Beach Unified, which is actually adjacent to LA Unified in some parts of the district, has less than one percent of its students in charters. Why is that? Because Long Beach for years has had leaders who know how to fix traditional public schools. Garden Grove, another award-winning large urban district in Orange County, similarly is not threatened by charters. And there are other large districts around the state where charter enrollment is minuscule.

Now that Measure EE, the recent parcel tax in LA Unified, has gone down to an overwhelming defeat, there’s been quite a bit of punditry suggesting that the voters somehow rejected poor kids and their teachers in a callous, back of the hand sort of way and that sinister business forces were responsible for the defeat. In my judgment, local school tax measures are always a referendum on the current leadership of the school system. Nothing about this result suggests that the genuine outpouring of support for teachers and kids during the January strike was illegitimate.

At rallies in downtown Los Angeles, estimated at 70,000-plus by the Los Angeles police, pro-union speakers hailed teachers as “the guardians of democracy,” “the Davids who took on the Goliath billionaires,” and “the true protectors of children’s interests” — all legitimate sentiments and powerful testimony to United Teachers of Los Angeles’ brilliant organizing campaign.

But that really wasn’t what was on the ballot three weeks ago. What was on the ballot was a yea or nay with regard to the board and superintendent who are ineffective when it comes to fixing traditional public schools.

What they have been unable to do thus far is to systematically prioritize the improvement of those schools in impoverished neighborhoods where parents seeking a brighter future for their kids are turning to charters as a reasonable alternative. Those schools need strong and stable leadership, more support for teachers, additional support staff and a message from the top that their success is critical to the entire district. In addition, central office leadership at the regional level that hasn’t delivered on that has to go.

The truth is you can give the Los Angeles school district half a billion dollars in additional revenue, hold them harmless for their enrollment loss, or come up with other more innovative schemes to ignore the obvious, but none of that will make a difference if the board and superintendent are incapable of delivering on the fundamental mission of fixing traditional public schools right now.

•••

Carl Cohn was formerly executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a member of the California State Board of Education and superintendent of the San Diego Unified and Long Beach Unified school districts.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. We are running a series of commentaries on all sides of the charter school controversy, which has emerged as one of the most contentious issues on the education reform landscape in California. To read other commentaries, check out our commentary section. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Dennis Higgins 3 months ago3 months ago

    As the former Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified Superintendent correctly points out, the proliferation of charter schools in Los Angeles is a reflection of the relative failure of its district schools and the demand from LA parents for immediate remedy. However, I would prefer to see a little more humility when it comes to judging the competence of LA's current board and superintendent. According to EdSource, the Smarter Balanced Test Results … Read More

    As the former Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified Superintendent correctly points out, the proliferation of charter schools in Los Angeles is a reflection of the relative failure of its district schools and the demand from LA parents for immediate remedy. However, I would prefer to see a little more humility when it comes to judging the competence of LA’s current board and superintendent. According to EdSource, the Smarter Balanced Test Results in Dr. Cohn’s previous school districts and LA Unified are similar. The percentage of students currently meeting or exceeding English and Math Standards in LA Unified are 43% and 32%, in Long Beach Unified 51% and 43%, and in San Diego Unified 56% and 47%. LA may have a lot more charter schools to contend with than San Diego or Long Beach does, but it’s not because of worse performance.

  2. Manuel 3 months ago3 months ago

    Dr. Cohn is technically correct: the Board is ultimately responsible. But other facts point in the direction of LAUSD's staff: they are the ones making the decisions (from funding to principal and teacher placement) that determine how the district is actually run. It is the Superintendent's responsibility that the staff's actions are for the best of the children LAUSD serves. Sadly, the Usual Suspects alluded to by Latosha are responsible for the leadership crisis that is responsible … Read More

    Dr. Cohn is technically correct: the Board is ultimately responsible.

    But other facts point in the direction of LAUSD’s staff: they are the ones making the decisions (from funding to principal and teacher placement) that determine how the district is actually run. It is the Superintendent’s responsibility that the staff’s actions are for the best of the children LAUSD serves.

    Sadly, the Usual Suspects alluded to by Latosha are responsible for the leadership crisis that is responsible for the state of LAUSD. They are the ones who have packed the Board since 1993 and have driven the cost of a Board seat election to obscene levels. That’s the origin of the dysfunctionality Dr. Cohn focuses on.

    Perhaps the election of Ms. Goldberg will bring about change and the Board will demand that whoever is the Superintendent finally does her/his job. If not, surely there is someone out there who can do no worse than the current one.

  3. Latosha 3 months ago3 months ago

    The hard truth is those same charters in poorer parts of the city haven't delivered remarkable gains for Black students. Unfortunately the LAUSD fell victim to the first round of what I call Ed Reform done White (as opposed to done Right). They were among the first to drink the Teach For America Kool-Aid, the first to focus solely on eliminating tenure and not eliminating ineffective instructional practice; there was an over-investment in STEM and … Read More

    The hard truth is those same charters in poorer parts of the city haven’t delivered remarkable gains for Black students. Unfortunately the LAUSD fell victim to the first round of what I call Ed Reform done White (as opposed to done Right). They were among the first to drink the Teach For America Kool-Aid, the first to focus solely on eliminating tenure and not eliminating ineffective instructional practice; there was an over-investment in STEM and technology and an under-investment in quality literacy based professional development for teachers.

    The road to administration that should always include distinguished teaching became a three-year stint as a teacher before becoming an assistant principal. The whole movement reeked of entitlement but LAUSD took it as altruistic when in reality corporations were trying to fill their coffers by any means necessary – or they genuinely underestimated the simple complexities involved in teaching and learning.

    To say that the current leadership is ineffective is unfair considering the capitalist, corporate machine that backed early ed reform bamboozled a whole lotta folks, including former President Obama and then members of the board. It turns out that many of the old vets were correct: systemic change will require much more investment from the state of California. You can’t be 44th in per pupil spending and expect to have quality schools as a matter of fact and not exception. LAUSD faces an uphill battle but it isn’t because of ineffective leadership –it’s because it too eagerly believed the wolves in sheep’s clothing – many of whom are now nowhere near education.

  4. Paul Cordeiro 3 months ago3 months ago

    As much as I respect Carl Cohn, his “analysis” that equates Long Beach and Garden Grove USD to LAUSD is iffy at best. Better that he go in depth on key data such as student transiency, housing (stressed housing tracks consistently with low achievement), early childhood support and preschool and poverty to name a some. “Fire ‘em all” as Cohn suggests doesn’t inform the issue. With a person of his resume, … Read More

    As much as I respect Carl Cohn, his “analysis” that equates Long Beach and Garden Grove USD to LAUSD is iffy at best. Better that he go in depth on key data such as student transiency, housing (stressed housing tracks consistently with low achievement), early childhood support and preschool and poverty to name a some. “Fire ‘em all” as Cohn suggests doesn’t inform the issue. With a person of his resume, I would have expected more from Mr. Cohn in the way of analyses before pronouncing LAUSD a leadership failure.

    Replies

    • Carl Cohn 3 months ago3 months ago

      Not sure what data you're looking at, but I'm very familiar with the demographics of LA Unified, having served as the Federal Court monitor for the Special Education consent decree there for two years. You might be surprised to know that the EL population in Garden Grove is substantially higher than LA's, and that all three districts have a Free/Reduced price lunch count at 65 percent or higher. Admittedly, LA's is significantly higher at 77 … Read More

      Not sure what data you’re looking at, but I’m very familiar with the demographics of LA Unified, having served as the Federal Court monitor for the Special Education consent decree there for two years. You might be surprised to know that the EL population in Garden Grove is substantially higher than LA’s, and that all three districts have a Free/Reduced price lunch count at 65 percent or higher. Admittedly, LA’s is significantly higher at 77 percent, but I’m not sure what that has to do with the failure to fix a traditional public school. Good leaders roll up their sleeves and ignore the demographics!

  5. John Awunganyi 3 months ago3 months ago

    Excellent observations from a man who understands what is happening in LAUSD. Destabilizing the district by draining the resources and thinking charters will improve schools and neighborhoods is so far fetched and unrealistic. This article should be read by all the board members