The United Teachers Los Angeles union staged a protest on the opening day of The Broad, Los Angeles’ new contemporary art museum on Sept. 20, 2015. They were protesting Broad’s strong support for charter schools. (Los Angeles Times)
How worried about charter schools is the California Teachers Assn.? Enough that it recently launched an effort to persuade local school boards not to allow any new ones, at least temporarily. It’s also still lobbying for an all-but-dead bill that would let school boards reject any proposed charter that would have a negative impact on district finances — which pretty much means any charter at all. The bill also would eliminate all avenues that a charter has today to appeal a board’s decision to deny its application.
Look, the CTA’s dislike for charter schools is understandable. And it’s not the union’s job to support charter schools or other reforms that might help students in underperforming schools, which typically are in low-income neighborhoods. The union may do so when those reforms align with its interests, just as it may not when the changes would harm its members. That’s what unions exist for: to protect members and get the best possible deal for them.
But the CTA isn’t helping anyone, including itself and its members, by supporting over-the-top, obstructionist proposals that have little chance of succeeding. Few Californians have shown a yearning to block the charter school movement. According to the state Education Department, nearly 10% of the children in California public schools — more than 570,000 — are being educated at a charter. In Los Angeles schools, it’s 16%. The CTA can’t stop the charter movement, and that’s a good thing for many students in this state. And by pushing for such highly improbable and unreasonable new rules, the union is wasting time and effort that could be put to better use.
Here’s the thing, though: CTA resistance to charter schools, when well thought out and well-played, does have an important role in setting policy. The union serves as a counterweight to a movement that has been allowed to grow without the necessary safeguards and oversight. It took investigations by the ACLU, Reuters news agency and other outside groups to discover the outrageous practices by some charters: requirements that parents volunteer at the school, a policy that has the effect of keeping out many of the neediest families; applications so complicated that only a superior student could manage them, though charter schools are supposed to be equally open to all students; and a reluctance to accept students with serious learning disabilities.
Still unknown is whether or to what extent some charter schools are trying to make their own records look better by expelling students who are failing.
And we still don’t know enough about whether charter schools are producing better academic results overall than traditional public schools. Too much depends on oversight by the local school district or by county and state school boards, and that oversight often has been lax.
The CTA has been an important player in a bill that would tighten some of the rules. AB 1360, which passed the Assembly, would prohibit admissions practices that discriminate against students who aren’t fluent in English or who need special education. It also would ban any parent-volunteer requirements and give parents the right to appeal expulsions. It’s worth noting that the bill’s author, Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), was able to bring the California Charter Schools Assn. on board with the bill by working out compromises between the union and the charter school advocacy group.
That’s how progress is made, and the CTA should be seeking out ways to make a lot more of it. It’s not enough for parents to have an appeals process; charter schools should be bound by the same rules for expelling students that district-run schools are.
More important, the state needs to overhaul the system by which charter schools are reviewed and renewed. In many parts of the state, and especially in Los Angeles, outstanding charter schools have given students their only affordable alternative to low-performing district schools. But too many mediocre and even outright bad charter schools have been allowed to continue operating despite their records of failure.
Opponents of charter schools make an important point: By diverting per-pupil spending from districts, they impose a cost on traditional public schools. That price is worth it when students receive a clearly superior education. But the state has never set real standards for what constitutes excellence. Charter schools need to offer more than a choice; they must offer an obviously better choice in order to stay open, whether it be superior instruction or more curriculum options.
These are issues that the CTA could tackle in future years, improving schools for students in ways that also would help its members. That would be a much better use of the union’s time than over-the-top attacks on charter schools that are sure to go nowhere.