“Join the movement for schools L.A. students deserve.” You’d be forgiven for thinking that meant schools that offered the best outcomes for their students. Instead, it’s the banner the United Teachers of Los Angeles is marching under in its “struggle” with the Los Angeles Unified School District and the “fight against the corporate parasites lined up against us.”
Ground zero for that fight appears to be the successful Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, which is in the midst of a yearlong and increasingly aggressive unionization push. Much of the money set aside by UTLA, which has a line item in its budget for anti-charter organizing, will likely go toward this effort.
UTLA’s talk of “corporate parasites” is puzzling, considering that less than one percent of charter schools in California – just six schools out of almost 1,200 – are organized as for-profit entities and the rest, Alliance included, are non-profits. Its tough rhetoric notwithstanding, it is a mystery why the union would have such an interest in unionizing the network of 27 free, public charter high schools and middle schools mostly in South and East Los Angeles.
“We’re a little suspect to their motives since they wish to abolish us,” Catherine Suitor, Chief Development and Communications Officer at the charter network, told us.
The unionization push is certainly a change of pace for an organization that has been calling for the end of public charter schools since they began , but the union seems to be operating under the old adage that if you can’t beat them, join them, and is organizing pro-union Alliance teachers under the umbrella of Alliance Educators United.
“Our teachers have a right to decide if they want to unionize,” Suitor added. “But a year into it they haven’t gotten the numbers. We are not for or against unionization. But UTLA has been unabashedly anti-charter.”
The union says it is simply about giving teachers a voice. But the May edition of the union’s newspaper may provide a more realistic insight into the union’s change of heart. In it, UTLA Treasurer Arlene Inouye noted that “with dropping membership levels and rising costs, we have had an operating deficit for seven budget cycles, due primarily to a dues structure that does not provide enough revenue to cover our annual general operating costs.”
So, while adding dues-paying members to the union rolls probably doesn’t hurt either, if the goal was really for schools L.A. students deserve, then the UTLA has come to the right place – not to unionize, but rather to learn from, as Alliance offers a successful track record that balances cost with results.
“They should be trying to learn from us rather then try to kill us,” Dale Okuno, a member of the Alliance board of directors told me. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating and we have great results.”
Earlier this year, the California Policy Center, this blog’s parent organization, authored a report comparing nine LAUSD traditional schools and nine LAUSD Alliance public charter schools based on the cost per pupil and educational achievement.
“The data shows the per-pupil costs for Alliance charter high school students to be $10,649 per year, compared to $15,372 per year for students at traditional public high schools within LAUSD; that is, we find a per-pupil cost differential of 44 percent in favor of Alliance charter schools,” the report found.
It also noted that on testing, “Alliance schools have decisively higher Academic Performance Index (API) scores, 762 vs. 701, and higher graduation rates, 91.5 percent vs. 84.1 percent,” and that “the Alliance charter students outperformed the LAUSD traditional students with average [SAT] scores of 1417 vs. 1299 – a significant difference.” The report continued, “Among college bound students, an SAT score of 1299 puts the student in the bottom 27 percent nationally. A score of 1417, by contrast, places the student at 41 percent nationally.”
The authors concluded, “LAUSD Alliance charter high schools provide better outcomes at lower costs than comparable LAUSD traditional operated public schools in the same area.”
That comes despite the fact that 94 percent of Alliance students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and that, on average, middle school students arrive with a reading level at first and second grade levels – and a fourth grade reading level for incoming high school students.
Alliance attributes that success to the flexibility to be different that being a charter network provides, flexibility that unionization could potentially eliminate, as the union remodels the network into a more traditional model.
“We wouldn’t negotiate away our future,” Suitor said. “We worry the union would ask for things we couldn’t afford. Our goal is not to be exactly like the traditional schools, but to be different.”
Among those points that could prove a deal-breaker at the bargaining table is merit-based teacher incentives, which the union has made clear in a number of postings on its website they see as the antithesis to public education.
But performance-based compensation is at the heart of how Alliance operates, even though teachers, on average, make more than their traditional counterparts and, as previously noted, still spend nearly $5,000 less per pupil and achieve better outcomes.
Alliance’s presence seems to be having a ripple effect across the district. As Ms. Suitor noted, when Alliance opened its first school, graduation rates were around 50 percent in the district. Now they are up to 70 percent, although Alliance remains a leader with a 91 percent four-year graduation rate and a 99 percent college acceptance rate.
Rising tides appear to be lifting all boats in the LAUSD. As over 158,000 students sit on waitlists to attend charter schools in California, now is not the time to upend one of the more successful education models and instead transform Alliance or other charter schools into just another cog in the traditional system they were designed to escape, taking choices away from parents and students in the process.
About the Author: Scott Kaufman brings his journalistic experience to the California Policy Center to write investigative reports and editorials for UnionWatch and the Prosperity Digest. Kaufman also works for the Orange County Register as an editorial writer. He graduated from the University of California, San Diego and got his start in journalism with the Washington D.C. based weekly Human Events. He transitioned to local government reporting at the Santa Barbara News-Press.