At a Los Angeles teachers union election forum, presidential contenders portray charter schools as a disease that needs to be eradicated.

As reported by LA School Report’s Vanessa Romo, charter schools were a primary target at the February 20th symposium for presidential candidates of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Actually, it seemed as if each aspirant who spoke on the issue was trying to position himself as Charter School Enemy #1.

Before we get into the debate itself, let me just spill out a few facts about charter schools.

  • Charter schools are public schools of choice.
  • They are tuition-free and open to any student who wishes to attend. They don’t cherry pick their students.  Charter schools allow parents, organizations, or community groups to restore, reinvent, and reenergize our public school system.
  • Charter schools are designed and governed by each local community, rather than by a central bureaucracy.
  • A charter school gets 3 to 5 years to do what it says it is going to do, and if it doesn’t succeed – unlike traditional public schools – it gets shut down.
  • In the U.S., there are 6,500 charter schools (in 42 states and D.C.), serving 2.5 million students; sadly there are 520,000 kids on wait lists.
  • In California, there are 1,130 schools, 500,000 students and 50,000 on wait lists.
  • According to the non-partisan California Legislative Analyst Office, in 2010-11, new charters got $721 less per pupil than traditional public schools. (Typically, the costs of the buildings are not included, although, according to California Charter School Association president Jed Wallace, CA’s new Local Control Funding Formula will equalize things.)

How well do charter schools perform? There have been many studies, the great majority of which claim that they do quite well, especially with some underserved student subgroups: low-income students, English Learners, African-American and Latino students. There’s mounting evidence that charter schools decrease dropout rates, increase college attendance rates and improve the quality of colleges that college-bound students attend.

If these kids go to college, do they actually graduate? And if charter schools really have lasting effects, shouldn’t they have an impact on how much money students earn? A new working paper examines these questions, and the answer is – in a word – yes

Not surprisingly, charter schools are very popular. Using just released data, by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Center for Policy Analysis blog reports that,

When families have public school choice, they increasingly select public charter schools over traditional public schools.

  • Over the past five years, student enrollment in public charter schools has grown by 80 percent.
  • … In seven school districts, more than 30 percent of students attend charter schools.
  • In 135 districts, at least 10 percent of students attend public charter schools.
  • Thirteen school districts saw increases in charter school enrollment ranging from nearly 20 to almost 60 percent in a single year.
  • … A 2013 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll indicates that nearly 70 percent of Americans favor charter schools.

Referring to the same study, former state Senator Gloria Romero wrote in the Orange County Register that

… 600 new public charter schools opened their doors for the 2013-14 school year, serving an estimated 288,000 students. Over the past decade, charter school enrollment rose 225 percent, and the number of new schools rose 118 percent.

Nina Rees, alliance president and CEO, stated, ‘Parents are increasingly voting with their feet. This is the largest increase in the number of students attending charter schools we’ve seen since tracking [began]. … Independent research has shown time and again that charter school students perform better academically than their traditional-school peers. Families are catching on, and these enrollment figures reflect that.

California led the nation in the number of new charters and students served, adding 104 schools and serving an additional 48,000 students (despite the additional space, some 50,000 students remain on charter waiting lists). California was followed by Arizona, with 87 new schools; Florida, with 75; Texas, with 52; and New York, with 26.

As I wrote last year, the teachers unions have a schizoid relationship with charters. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, they want to kill them off; on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays they want to unionize them. To date, only about 12 percent nationwide and 15 percent in CA have been unionized. Seems that many teachers value the freedom that non-unionization offers more than they care about the job protections that the unions provide. And this is just not okeydokey with union bosses, and the candidates for the UTLA presidency were not shy about expressing their opinions.

Three members immediately conceded that charters are too attractive to the public and are here to stay.

Gregg Solkovits, Alex Caputo-Pearl, and Bill Gaffney agreed that there’s no turning back the tide on the charter school movement within LA Unified and therefore UTLA must aggressively pursue efforts to organize charter school teachers.

Gaffney, who is a charter member of UTLA’s charter organizing committee said,

… charter school teachers are easily convinced that joining UTLA is much better deal for them. Although, he conceded, it is ‘a very scary process’ that involves a lot of secrecy for teachers with no legal protections.

Scary? No legal protections? Gee, not exactly great selling points.

Solkovits is currently a UTLA vice-president and longtime unionista. He was refreshingly honest when he said,

When charter schools are organized, they become much less attractive to our enemies.

Please note that he didn’t bother to mention the success of charter schools or long wait lists, which are the result of parents clamoring to get their kids out of lousy traditional public schools. Nah. He went right for the political. At least he didn’t come up with the typical union tripe about his position being “for the children.”

Not to be outdone, Saul Lankster, previously a teacher at two charter schools, has done an about-face and is staunchly anti-charter. As Romo writes, “His plan is to withdraw support from board members who support charter schools in favor of ones who oppose them.”

Leonard Segal wants to block charter expansion by changing California’s education code.

Then there is incumbent Warren Fletcher, who is perceived by many of the candidates to be a wimp. But regarding charters, he proudly pointed to the fact that he opposed Prop. 39, despite the UTLA leadership’s endorsement of the initiative in 2000. This law, among other things, allows for traditional public schools to let charter schools coexist on their campus (colocation) if room is available. This prop turned out embarrassing for traditional public schools and the union because charters frequently outperform their “colocatees” with kids from the same demographic. This phenomenon was spelled out quite clearly by Jason Riley. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he quotes from Steven Brill’s Class Warfare, which compares the teachers’ contracts at Harlem Success Academy, a high-performing charter school in New York City, and a traditional public school that shares the same building and teaches kids from the same socio-economic background.

‘The Harlem Success teachers’ contract drives home the idea that the school is about the children, not the grown-ups. It is one page, allows them to be fired at will, and defines their responsibilities no more specifically than that they must help the school achieve its mission. Harlem Success teachers are paid about 5 to 10 percent more than union teachers on the other side of the building who have their levels of experience.

‘The union contract in place on the public school side of the building is 167 pages. Most of it is about job protection and what teachers can and cannot be asked to do during the 6 hours and 57.5 minutes (8:30 to about 3:25, with 50 minutes off for lunch) of their 179-day work year.’

In … 2010, 29 percent of the students at the traditional public school were reading and writing at grade level, and 34 percent were performing at grade level in math. At the charter school, the corresponding numbers were 86 percent and 94 percent. (Emphasis added.)

Given the embarrassment factor, it’s easy to see why colocation and charters in general are issues for the teachers unions.

UTLA ballots went out yesterday, but it looks as if, no matter who gets elected as new UTLA president, the assault on charters – in spite of their success – will continue. As such, is it surprising that only 22 percent of Americans think that teachers unions have a positive effect on education? This is an all-time low figure and the unions are dealing with the deepening hole they are in by ordering more shovels.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues

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    One Response to UTLA Presidential Candidates Slam Charter Schools

    1. Keith De Filippis says:

      Keep up the good work.

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