LA teachers take on the charters

February 11, 2010

Sarah Knopp and Rebecca Sun, members of United Teachers Los Angeles, report on the fight to stop the privatization of LA's public schools.

THE BATTLE has begun: Corporate Los Angeles and the charter school operators in one corner--and teachers, parents and community allies in the other.

On February 23, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school board will decide on the fate of 30 schools--12 existing ones and 18 new ones, serving 40,000 students. Under a "school choice" motion passed by the board last fall, the schools will be run either by charter companies--or by teachers and parents.

On February 2 and 6, "advisory votes" were held in the communities around the 30 schools, where parents, teachers, students and community members got to choose between plans put forward by charter school operators and those put forward by teachers, with input and support from parent, community and district allies.

In all 30 cases, local plans written by teachers and their collaborators won! Some 87 percent of parents who voted chose the "local school plans" written by teachers and allies.

The proposals from the teachers were an attempt by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) to confront the privatization tidal wave and fight for a grassroots vision of school reform, while at the same time challenging severe budget cuts and layoffs. These fights have pushed us closer to the kind of social justice unionism that we will need to survive--and hopefully to improve education--in the coming years.

UTLA members protest the attack on public schools
UTLA members protest the attack on public schools

In each case where charter school operators applied to run a school, LA teachers did so as well, working with parents to come up with plans for what our schools should look like.

Unfortunately, the sentiment that we should run our own schools wasn't reflected in the recommendations of the school board's "advisory panel" of experts. They supported the teacher-community plans in 12 cases, had a split opinion between local plans and outside operators in 13 cases, and recommended outside operators outright in four cases.

Next, LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines will make his recommendations, and the school board will vote February 23. The board is likely to rubber stamp what Cortines supports.

We understand that the LAUSD school board and powerful charter school advocates (such as billionaire Eli Broad) are determined to privatize many of our schools--no matter what teachers do, and no matter what the community wants. Nevertheless, UTLA has used the "school choice" process to campaign for genuine school reform, in which teachers, parents and the community create and control their own schools with full funding.

UTLA AND its allies are up against charter operators, which have multimillion-dollar bank accounts and paid organizers. But teams of teachers and parents have been hitting the streets to talk to communities about schools and reform.

At a door-knocking that we did in the community surrounding Carver Middle School in South Central LA, for example, we gathered 300 signatures in support of the teacher-parent reform plan in just three hours.

We began to get a taste of what a real demand for "community control of schools" could look like when we teamed up with Spanish-speaking parents and long-standing African American community activists to go door-to-door to talk about schools. We were greeted enthusiastically by everyone we met.

In that spirit, UTLA chapter chairs, activists and leaders gathered January 24 in the huge auditorium of Miguel Contreras Learning Center to map out a plan for a spring of fightbacks.

Next comes UTLA's participation in California's statewide action to defend public education on March 4. UTLA, the California Teachers Association, the California Faculty Association and many other teachers' unions have joined forces with college students.

In LA, there will be afternoon rallies on March 4th in several locations around the district, the largest likely to be in Pershing Square in the heart of downtown. Teachers are also being encouraged to do informational leafleting with parents before school. These actions will supplement presumably more militant ones going on among students--including walkouts and building occupations in some places.

Many activists have advocated for a one-day statewide public sector shutdown. While March 4 may or may not include teacher job actions, it has already helped to raise the question of work stoppages in teachers' unions up and down the state and to make them more likely in the future if that's what it will take to defend and improve funding for public education.

AT THE same time as "school choice" votes are happening in many communities, one flagship LA high school is being ripped apart.

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines recently announced that he would "reconstitute" Fremont high school, dismissing all teachers and staff and forcing them to reapply for their jobs as of July 1. Teachers who have been with the district for at least two years will still have the right to work, but may be forcibly transferred from a school that they consider to be their home.

To fight this "reconstitution," the teachers have formed the Committee to Save Fremont and initiated a community forum to get more parents involved in their effort to write an alternative reform proposal for their school.

Similar organizing is taking place on other fronts. On January 21, close to 200 parents, teachers and community members packed the library at Belvedere Middle School in East Los Angeles, one of the sites for the advisory votes about school reform.

The community forum was organized by the Community Coalition to Stop Charter Control, which was started by teachers and parents at Belvedere. After the presentation, one parent said she was considering sending her child to a charter school, but after learning about their discriminatory practices and their lack of accountability, she stated that she is reconsidering her decision.

The fight for the future of Belvedere heated up January 26, when teachers followed Green Dot and Alliance charter schools in presenting their proposals for the five smalls schools opening up this fall at Esteban Torres High School in East LA. Approximately 300 parents, teachers and students showed up in overwhelming support for the teacher-community proposals.

At the presentation meeting, speakers were told to speak in English only, despite the predominately Spanish-speaking audience. Although the moderators tried to silence the community's voice, they could not silence the loud cheers and applause for the teacher-community plans.

One of the proposed plans was submitted by the Humanitas Art and Technology Academy, comprised of teachers with a combined 80 years of teaching experience in the overwhelmingly Latino East LA community. Under their proposed plan, teachers would have control over their curriculum, hiring and budget decisions. In addition, school personnel would be held accountable by an elected school site council comprised of parents, students and community members.

There's no guarantee, of course, that the school board will approve this or any of the other proposals put forward by UTLA and its allies in the community. But while the school board's school choice motion was intended to simply hand over LAUSD schools to outside operators, parents and teachers are seizing this opportunity to stand up for their schools.

We're fighting--to show what real educational reform looks like and that it can be done--using student engagement, teacher collaboration and parental and community empowerment. That fight, combined with the struggle against budget cuts and layoffs, is the way to a genuine progressive school reform in LA.

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