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A Peace Plan for the L.A. Charter School War

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Before the tanks roll in the Los Angeles charter school wars, it might be a good idea to weigh the possibilities for peace against the costs of conflict.

Last week, in a forum sponsored by the Alliance for a Better Community, I raised the possibility of whether a classic big-city public school coalition could be created in Los Angeles to avoid the coming charter school war. 

The city once had such a coalition, and it produced an elegant plan, called LEARN, to radically decentralize the district, give power and voice to teachers and principals, and to support schools with professional development.  The coalition included corporate chiefs (mostly from businesses that no longer exist), community voices, and the head of United Teachers Los Angeles.

Over the course of five years, more than half the schools in the district signed up.  But LEARN failed to transform the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Opposition developed within the union, and district bureaucrats exhibited active and passive resistance.  Leaders of the reform movement fled, began the push for charters, which we see in full flower now: 250 charters enrolling more than 130,000 students. 

The Growing Charter School Interest Group

Charters have formed a robust interest group, elected a former charter operator to the LAUSD board, and floated a plan to take over half the district.  Massive resistance followed.

I predicted war, and the forces are massing.  Newly elected school board member Scott Schmerelson has introduced a resolution opposing the plan, and board member Monica Ratliff is beginning to investigate transforming all the schools in the district into charters.  And a blue-ribbon finance commission has just reported that LAUSD is facing a $333-million deficit as early as 2017 with larger shortfalls in succeeding years.  Declining enrollment due partly to migration of students to charters raises the specter of bankruptcy.

As I wrote earlier, the charter school war will not be a short or limited conflict.  It will spread beyond the bounds of Los Angeles and influence politics at the state and national levels.  Those who have studied past education wars know that they grind on for a long time.  15 years of school reform wars in Los Angeles have produced no winners.  Given the entirely unpleasant prospects of war and its likely outcome, let's take a preliminary glance at how charters and the school district might engage one another.

A 5-Point Peace Plan

I've read some of the research on charters and several histories of big city reforms, including the ones I've written.  (See the Going Deeper section at the end of this post if you'd like to follow along.)  A little rumination yields a five-point peace plan: 

1.    All politics are local.  Build around what L.A. needs, not what others do.  Statements like "the mayor runs the schools in Boston, so that's what we should do" or "we should create a charter district because that's what they did in New Orleans," don't mean either beans or oysters in Los Angeles.  Let's focus on two big, L.A-centric issues: increasing the life chances of immigrant children, and equity in the distribution of resources and talent.  There are lots of other issues—test scores indicate some of them—but if we get the big two right, we will have done a good thing.

 Seeing L.A.'s educational issues in that context creates the opportunity for a larger, different coalition of schools, parents, community organizations that can build pathways through school to colleges, good paying jobs, and community engagement as adults.

 2.    Quit Moralizing.  Peace requires that the parties to this war get beyond their self-serving partisan scripts.  Stop the mantras that charter schools are the province of "billionaires and privatizers," or that "charters are saving kids from failing public schools."  There are no saints in this war, only interest groups, and real differences about those interests. 

For example, Cami Anderson, the superintendent brought in to reform Newark's public schools points out "that she was expected to turn Newark's public schools into a national model, yet as children left for charters—and state funds followed them—she would be continually closing schools and dismissing teachers, social workers, and guidance counselors."

In order to make peace, the parties need to understand their real interests, and what's worth fighting for.  Do the charter reform advocates really need to delegitimize teacher training at the 20 or so universities in Los Angeles in favor of their own brand?  Is it really necessary for unions to protect permanent employment status (sometimes called tenure) after two years?

 3.    The Goal Is A New Education System; Not More Charters.  School reform has been on the national agenda for three decades because the system of public education created in the early 20th Century was not designed to produce the results needed in this century.  The gap between design and performance are most apparent in urban schools, but it exists everywhere.

Thus far, the design of new learning systems has taken a back seat to reforms built on governance changes and negative incentives: test, punish, and takeover.  Most reforms tinker within the existing learning system of classes, semesters, lessons, and regurgitative tests, while outside of school a new world of access to learning is available. 

California and Los Angeles should be a world leader in personalization, adaptivity, delivering educative content directly to students.  If I had a billion dollars, I'd put my money on transforming learning rather than the charter school turf war.

 4.    Political Muscle Can Help, A Little.  Many of the "engagement" efforts between school districts and charters have begun because of high-level political intervention.  Efforts by former mayor Thomas Menino in Boston and Mayor Frank Jackson in Cleveland led the way to compacts between the sectors.  In Denver, district superintendents led the way. 

But big money and big names do not insure success.  In Newark, NJ, then-mayor (now U.S. senator) Cory Booker and governor (and now presidential candidate) Chris Christie advanced a dual strategy of opening charters and rebuilding the district.  As opposition grew, Booker and Christie moved on to other opportunities.

As I read the histories of urban reform, I am struck that persistence counts more than marquee value.  Implementation counts for more than pronouncement.  Denver, for example, has an ongoing working group of charter and district personnel.  In New Orleans, the schools are only now, a decade into the post-Katrina reforms, starting to grapple with system-wide issues.  Starting charters is easier than getting charter school operators to work together.  (Sometimes bureaucracy has its charms.)

5.    The Charter Sector Has To Bring Something of Value To The Table.  For the most part, calls for engagement between the charter sector and school districts have been pleas for districts not to oppose the incursion of charters as they trash the reputations of public schools and take away their students.  Particularly in a Blue State, charters have to bring something to the table that the public school establishment values.

 Charters can greatly help Californians realize that their schools are horribly funded.  A new analysis from the California Budget and Policy Center shows that in 2014-15, California ranked 42nd among all states in spending per K-12 student after adjusting for differences in the cost of living in each state.  And we're dead last, 51st, in the ratio of students to teachers, librarians, and guidance counselors.

Over the next year, Californians will debate whether to extend Proposition 30, that brought schools back from the brink of recession-starved bankruptcy, and consider other tax measures.  The robust political interest group that charter schools have created could make or break these campaigns.

 This may not be the best plan, or the only plan.  But it's a peace plan rather than a battle plan that produces no winners.

Going Deeper

Recently, the Fordham Institute—a charter friendly think tank— published a report on how school districts in Boston, Cleveland, Washington DC, Denver, and Houston engage charters.  In Houston, the district and charter sectors ignore one another, each claiming superiority, but in the other districts "new, spotty, and uncertain" engagement has taken place.

Dale Russakoff's book The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Public Schools? tells the story of Newark and Mark Zuckerberg's $100-million gift.  (Education Week excerpt; Atlantic review).

The Cowen Institute at Tulane produces, among other reports, an annual state-of-the-schools report that is must reading.

Sarah Carr's Hope Against Hope, provides both a social context and human stories.  It's a very good read, too.

In Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance, Kristen Buras writes a highly critical account of the reforms and a chronicle of efforts to resist them.

The father of the portfolio schools idea, Paul Hill, has written, The Democratic Constitution for Public Education, that details his evolving thinking about how to devolve authority and operating capacity to schools.

And, of course, take a look at our book, Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education.

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