OpinionLos Angeles  

Rush to Pass ‘Backroom’ Deal Banning New Charters Would Be Bad for L.A. Students, Transparency Calls Should Be for All Public Schools

By Seth Litt and Katie Braude and Ben Austin | January 25, 2019

Credit: Paul Spinelli/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Despite the fact that parents and students were on the outside looking in when it came to the high-stakes contract negotiations in Los Angeles, the teacher strike drew much-needed attention to public education and secured small but meaningful steps toward providing schools and teachers with more resources, including academic counselors, librarians, nurses, and a small reduction in class sizes. We are hopeful that this will lead to better outcomes for students at Los Angeles Unified schools.

However, in the midst of these negotiations, the district and the teachers union apparently cut a backroom deal resulting in a proposed LAUSD board resolution supporting a quality-blind ban on new nonprofit public charter schools. This late-night transaction was made with no transparency, no public debate, and no input from the students and parents it would impact most.

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Now the board is rushing to jam through this backroom deal. It may benefit special interests and the district bureaucracy, but it could deny educational opportunity to tens of thousands of low-income students and students of color trapped in systemically failing district schools.

The ban is presented in the resolution as temporary, but California parents have seen this cynical strategy before. In 2013, the California state legislature voted to “temporarily” suspend API (Academic Performance Index) scores, which created an incomplete but parent-friendly score to help families rate school quality. In 2019, parents are still waiting for the return of the API score or another parent-friendly tool to track and compare school quality.

United Teachers Los Angeles claims the public charter ban is necessary because there are already too many schools in LAUSD. But if the goal is to put kids first, as both sides claim, the question should not be: Are there too many schools? The question must be: Are there enough high-quality schools for all children in Los Angeles?

With only 38 percent of graduates from the schools that are managed by LAUSD and UTLA deemed college or career ready on the state’s accountability measurement tool, the answer is clearly no.

The fact that every morning LAUSD parents drop off their children at schools that look, operate, and educate in much the same way as their own childhood schools seems to have been lost in this debate. So, too, is the fact that most of the lowest-performing schools in Los Angeles today are exactly the same schools that were struggling to serve students a decade ago. Having enough physical buildings to educate children — even with the additional resources — is necessary but far from sufficient. Public school buildings and public education do not exist for their own sake. They exist to ensure that every child has the opportunity and the skills to live the life they deserve. We need to fundamentally commit to what we believe all students deserve and to honestly face where we are falling short of that ideal.

Our organizations do not support a quality-blind ban on new public charters because it would disproportionately harm low-income students and students of color. Provisions of the newly ratified UTLA contract (and state law) already make it statistically far more likely that these students will be assigned to an ineffective teacher in a low-performing school. Affluent families can always choose to move to a neighborhood with high-performing schools, navigate complex magnet and inter-district transfer systems, or opt for private school. Many lower-income families and undocumented parents do not have those choices and have turned to public charter schools as better options for their children. This is why close to 90 percent of charter students in LAUSD are students of color.

We are baffled that leaders who call themselves progressives would support a policy that doubles down on educational inequality by denying public school choice to the students and parents who need it most. Especially when they have not shown anywhere near as much vigor in addressing these inequities in district schools.

While we oppose UTLA’s charter moratorium as decidedly not putting kids first, we agree with the union’s call for greater accountability and transparency for public charter schools.

Because all kids deserve a high-quality public education regardless of which type of public school they attend, we believe UTLA’s call for accountability and transparency should apply to all public schools, district as well as charter. All public schools should be transparent in terms of how they operate, educate, and spend public dollars. And all public schools should be accountable for the outcomes of the children they educate.

Charter schools must be renewed every five years. They should be evaluated based on academic performance and student outcomes. UTLA is absolutely right that failing charter schools should be held accountable and shut down.

Currently, no district mechanism exists to hold LAUSD accountable for the success of the district schools that it operates. Failing district schools should be held accountable for the outcomes of their students, and parents should have a seat at the table to help determine how their school is transformed. The shameful era of looking the other way as generations of children are left behind must end.

On Tuesday, when the LAUSD board meets to vote on the public charter ban, we urge the board to reject this backroom deal and embrace a framework to actually put kids first: greater accountability and transparency that would raise the educational quality for all public schools, be they charter or district. Such a framework would include the following elements:

● A consistent public charter school renewal policy that emphasizes academic performance, student improvement, and student outcomes as compared to schools serving similar demographics, and uses good stewardship of public funds as core determinants for charter renewals. Public charter schools that consistently provide a low-quality education, or misspend public dollars, should be shut down.

● Create a consistent platform for sharing information on all public schools including charters’ school operations, performance, pedagogy, and the spending of public dollars, so that all parents can more easily choose the best school for their child.

● New parent-friendly district school transparency policies making it easy for parents to understand and compare district school operations, performance, pedagogy, and the spending of public dollars.

● New accountability policies for all district schools that emphasize academic performance, student improvement, and student outcomes as compared to schools serving similar demographics, and good stewardship of public funds. In systemically failing district schools, or in schools that misspend public funds, parents should have a seat at the table to determine how best to transform their schools for their children.

● New district policies to reward high-performing public charter and district schools, expand their capacity, and spread their best practices.

Last week’s strike was a crisis long in the making. Moving forward we need a bold vision for how to reimagine public education for the children of the 21st century. UTLA’s call for charter accountability and transparency could establish the framework for a kids-first compromise to raise the level of educational quality for all public schools in Los Angeles. We should seize this opportunity to find common ground and ensure that every child in LAUSD receives the education they need and the future they deserve.

Seth Litt is executive director of Parent Revolution, Katie Braude is executive director of Speak Up, and Ben Austin is executive director of Kids Coalition. All three organizations advocate for parent empowerment and a kids-first agenda.

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