When it comes to dealing with California’s successful, independent charter schools, powerful, monied special interests – and the lawmakers they fund – prefer a twist on the adage “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Their version: If you can’t beat them, destroy them. This was manifested last month when four Democratic lawmakers trumpeted their introduction of a packet of new bills increasing state regulations over charters, including heightened public reporting requirements, restricting for-profit operations, greater transparency and promotion of employee rights.
On paper, while the “reforms” use language of responsible government oversight, they represent yet another effort to erase what has made charter schools succeed: Independence from the labyrinth of education codes and laws strangling districts and negatively impacting student achievement.
Since enactment two decades ago, charter schools have faced hostility from teacher unions because most are not unionized, thereby reducing their income stream due to an inability to collect compulsory member dues. Yet charters have been extremely successful in producing academic outcomes for students, largely due to their freedom from the mandates and requirements constraining traditional schools.
Ironically, the bills were introduced within days of the Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes release of a study showing that charter schools outperform traditional schools, particularly in urban areas, reinforcing the understanding that charter schools boost academic outcomes for minority and poor students.
Approximately 550,000 K-12 students are enrolled in California charter schools; an additional 91,000 linger on waiting lists. Parental demand for charter schools has soared, particularly from Latino and African American parents who are more likely to be trapped in chronically underperforming schools. Increasingly, parents are “voting with their feet,” seeking enrollment in charter schools or supporting conversion of “neighborhood” schools into charters.
Independent charter schools provide a striking contrast to traditional public schools through their prioritization of students. California’s education system is plagued with laws protecting the pay, perks and rights of unionized employees and ignoring needs of students. Last year, nine students successfully sued California seeking to overturn several union-backed statutes which combined to deny students a quality education. Hailed as the most significant education civil rights suit in decades, the case, Vergara v. California, is being appealed by teachers unions.
Undoubtedly, there is room for charter school reform. But that is not the intent: These bills are intended to squelch their growth by slashing their independence. They are sponsored by the California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers and California Labor Federation, which have been overtly hostile to charter schools.
One bill introduced at last week’s Sacramento press conference would establish charter schools as governmental entities and their employees as public employees, thereby giving them an increased ability to unionize. Not surprisingly, the lawmakers were joined by the CTA, CFT and the California Labor Federation – reinforcing the perception that the bills are more about jobs and dues rather than students and learning.
At the press conference, Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina, stated, “The ability to unionize is a civil right.” What he failed to say is that existing law permits unionization at charter schools, though most employees – about 85 percent – have chosen not to do so. Sadly, Hernandez has yet to speak on the students’ Vergara civil rights lawsuit – presumably because students don’t fund his campaign coffers.
About the Author: Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. Romero is the director of education reform for the California Policy Center. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.