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