LA’s charter school giveaway

August 31, 2009

Sarah Knopp, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles, looks at the looming threat of privatization--and the potential for resistance among teachers, parents and students.

IN A progressive city, with a progressive mayor and one of the most progressive teachers' unions in the country, the floodgates were opened August 25 to private control over education.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board voted 6-1 to authorize opening up over 250 schools to bids by charter schools and other outside entities.

Many of these schools have been "program improvement" schools for three or more years--that is, schools that are failing under the test score criteria set by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Fifty others, though, are brand-new, shiny, multimillion-dollar complexes, built with public bond money in the largest public works program any city has undertaken since the 1970s.

These new schools have state-of-the-art facilities--all the best science labs, art rooms, cafeterias and common space. They stand in stark contrast to the crumbling and often-poisoned schools that most LAUSD students attend.

Now, these newly constructed, publicly funded buildings could be turned over to private operators--though the original bond offering that voters approved said nothing of the sort.

Teachers, students and community members in Los Angeles protest a decision to put 250 schools up for bidding
Teachers, students and community members in Los Angeles protest a decision to put 250 schools up for bidding (UTLA)

The schools haven't been turned over yet--under the terms of the school board's resolution, the board and the superintendent will consider competing proposals for each of the schools and make a decision in the future.

But the direction is obvious. As Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, the sole dissenting vote on the board, pointed out incredulously, "This motion means that Los Angeles Unified School District has to bid for control of our own schools!"

The board member who raised the motion, Yolie Flores Aguilar, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's ally on the board, painted the proposal as matter of "choice" and "competition." Ironically, though, students, parents and teachers won't get to vote for the "choices" that will be presented for the schools starting this winter.

Some progressive organizations and individual teachers have argued that we can make our own proposals for running the schools that have been opened up to bidding. But there is no mechanism for communities or teachers to ensure that their opinions will get taken into account. And the charter school operators have big advantages--including pockets full of private-sector cash--to push their ready-made plans.

WHY WOULD a school board vote to give up control of its own schools, including 50 brand-new buildings? The process of passing the resolution revealed another motive: breaking the power of teachers' and other employees' unions.

School board member Steve Zimmer raised an amendment to the resolution that existing employees' unions would have to be the sole representatives of employees in the new schools. But this amendment was watered down to say that existing unions would only represent workers in schools that remained under the control of LAUSD.

So the amendment did nothing to counter the clear threat to unions at the schools opened up to bidding. As has happened in other cities where charter schools got a foothold, the union could be forced out altogether, employees could be fired en masse or required to reapply for their jobs, and collective bargaining agreements might have to be renegotiated with a hostile employer.

Zimmer, who just began his term on the board this year after being elected with the overwhelming support of the teachers' union, voted for the proposal. Despite his claim to oppose privatization, his strategy for dealing with the motion was to support it and try to amend it.

That strategy failed, as the amendment on workers' representation illustrated. Another amendment proposed by Zimmer--that parents, teachers and high school students should have to vote for a reform proposal at individual schools--was also watered down to the point of meaninglessness, by making the vote by parents, teachers and students "advisory."

The worst part of this story is that it didn't have to go down this way. I was part of the effort to organize opposition to the giveaway proposal. In the two weeks before the motion was raised in the board, LAUSD held "town hall" meetings all over the city to hear community input about improving existing schools and visions for the 50 new schools.

Activists from our Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) caucus in the LA teachers union attended the town hall meetings to talk to parents about the motion, the issues at stake, and the possibilities for building coalitions for progressive school reform. In one of the town halls in the predominantly Latino suburb Maywood, 37 of the 40 speakers spoke against privatization of the schools.

Opposition in this particular neighborhood can be attributed to well-organized parent and community groups, such as Maywood Unidos, which have fought not only to make Maywood a sanctuary city for immigrants, but also for community access to schools. At a brand-new school built in the neighborhood, Maywood Academy, only 40 percent of the students last year were actually from Maywood. Students who lived right across the street couldn't get access.

Similarly, a self-organized group of parents at Garfield High School has been fighting against a takeover of their school by the charter schools operator Green Dot. And the community organization ACORN organized opposition to the privatization resolution.

In contrast to these groups, other organizations claiming to represent "the community" supported the motion. For example, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inner City Struggle and Community Coalition all took positions in favor of the proposal, probably hoping that they will be able to gain full or partial control over some of the new schools.

OUTSIDE THE school board meeting, both supporters and opponents of the motion held rallies.

Green Dot, which has been funded with millions of dollars from the Eli Broad Foundation, supports a "parent organization" called Parent Revolution that held a demonstration, complete with Mayor Villaraigosa speaking. Over 1,000 people attended, wearing pre-printed blue shirts.

Some of the attendees reported that they had been offered $10 or community service hours to attend the rally. But among attendees, there were certainly parents who sincerely want to fight for school reform and believe this proposal will help them to do it.

Our union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), wrote an open letter to these parents explaining our opposition to key aspects of the motion, and many of us spent time talking to parents. Among those whose genuine concern is for social justice for their children, there is huge potential for building alliances when we point out that the only way to get real reform is for parents, teachers and students to unite and fight for more resources and democracy.

With this goal in mind, PEAC activists have set out to formulate a vision for reform that we can build with parents and students. This vision includes the basic principles of access, equity, excellence, public management, local control, sustainability and commitment to collective bargaining rights.

UTLA has also formed a "reform committee." Inside this committee, debates exist about some of the pilot school and innovation division projects already existing in LAUSD. At some schools, special agreements with the mayor, extra resources, more local control over budgets and curriculum, and special partnerships with community organizations have been traded for thinned-down union contracts. The jury is still out on whether these schools are really providing more "innovation" and local control.

Though the union as a whole did not commit fully to the kind of alliances with parents that we should have in the first round of this fight, the potential to organize around the issue of equal access to excellent education is very strong.

If we attempt to include parents and students in the fight for access for all to quality public schools, we could stop the mayor and his charter school allies from privatizing our schools, and fight to shape those schools according to the visions of parents, teachers and students. We now have to counter their agenda with ours, school by school.

Further Reading

From the archives