Using the crisis to push charters

July 28, 2009

Gillian Russom, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles, describes how budget cuts are being used to push the charter school agenda.

THE LOS Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is considering a motion to open hundreds of LAUSD schools to takeover by outside entities, including charter school operators.

The affected schools include the 50 new schools the district is constructing, as well as the 227 schools that have not met the test score requirements mandated by the misnamed "No Child Left Behind" law for three or more years.

The move follows the layoff of 2,057 teachers, which will increase class sizes in every grade. But instead of fully funding and improving public schools in Los Angeles, the LAUSD is turning over an increasing number of its schools to privately run charters, which don't have the same union representation for teachers or the same obligation to educate every child.

Proposed by Yolie Flores Aguilar, a school board member closely allied with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the motion calls for the district to accept proposals from "internal and external stakeholders" interested in these schools. While the district is supposed to collect community input on who should run the new schools, if the "stakeholders" are "unwilling to cooperate," the superintendent will "independently continue this team effort."

UTLA members picket an LAUSD Board meeting in May
UTLA members picket an LAUSD Board meeting in May (David Rapkin | SW)

After decades in which virtually no new schools were built in the low-income neighborhoods of East, South and Central Los Angeles, the 50 new schools are desperately needed to relieve overcrowding. Turning them over to charters means that they might not serve the students with the greatest needs in these communities.

Charters tend to pull the most active parents and their children out of the public schools. And even if a charter school has open enrollment initially, it can later reject students that don't meet its "standards," sending them back into the underfunded public system.

Not surprisingly, the 227 schools considered "failing" under No Child Left Behind are also concentrated in Los Angeles' poor communities of color. These schools lost the largest number of teachers to recent layoffs, and have been chronically under-resourced for decades. Now they are being blamed for their failures and could be turned over for private organizations to run.

The takeover of these schools could also be a major blow to United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). Charter and other independent school operators could potentially reconstitute the entire staff of a school they take over, since they don't have a contract with UTLA.

THE DRIVE toward charters is being pushed by the Obama administration. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, back when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, oversaw the reconstitution of 76 schools, two-thirds of which became charter or "contract" schools, and lost their union representation for teachers.

In LA, no one is more excited about Flores Aguilar's motion than the head of Green Dot Public Schools, which operates 12 charter schools in Los Angeles and one in the Bronx, and is working with Washington, D.C., Superintendent of Schools Michelle Rhee to open charters in the nation's capital.

To further its agenda, Green Dot started the Los Angeles Parents Union (LAPU). In addition to backing from Green Dot, the LAPU is funded by billionaire Eli Broad and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. LAPU blames both the LAUSD and UTLA for the poor state of schools in LA, and vows to transform any public school into a charter within two years if 51 percent of that school's parents sign on to its campaign.

LA parents are right to be outraged at the state of our schools. But Green Dot is manipulating their justified anger into support for a corporate project that will ultimately leave more children behind.

About 50 members of LAPU attended the July 14 School Board meeting to support Flores Aguilar's motion (which will be voted on at the board's August 25 meeting). A wide variety of other organizations spoke in support of the motion--local and state politicians, community organizations, business owners and a charter school operator from UCLA's business school.

All the speakers couched their support for the motion in the language of giving more choice to parents and better opportunities for students of color. "Right now, only the wealthy get a choice," said a speaker from the community organization Families in Schools. "This motion is saying that working class and poor children should also have a choice in their education."

Ben Austin, a Beverly Hills lawyer and executive director of the LAPU, presented an odd image shaking his fist at the microphone in his three-piece suit and calling for a "parent revolution." While claiming that he is advocating for charter schools because "I only want what's best for my daughter Fiona and all the other students in Los Angeles," he also let slip some of the free-market rhetoric that drives Green Dot's agenda. "We must require schools to compete," he said.

Like many school districts around the country, LAUSD is responding to pressure from the Obama administration to use the upheaval in public school funding to push through "reform" in the form of charter schools and test-score-based "merit" pay for teachers. Progressive observers have cited this situation as a perfect example of what Naomi Klein exposes in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism--the use of a time of crisis to push through a corporate agenda.

Speaking in San Francisco in May, Arne Duncan said that California is facing a "moment of opportunity and a moment of crisis...Despite how tough things are financially, it's often at times of crisis we get the reforms we need."

The Obama administration is reserving $5 billion of its economic stimulus money for school districts that can prove their commitment to "reform" by lifting caps on the expansion of charter schools or establishing "performance-based" pay for teachers. This "Race to the Top Challenge" was mentioned by several of the pro-charter school speakers at the Los Angeles School Board meeting. "You are responding to what Obama wants us to do for our children," said a charter school principal.

THE GROWTH of charter schools presents a formidable challenge to UTLA activists committed to defending public education. We must identify with parents' frustration at the state of our public schools, clearly explain why the charter school movement is not in the interests of working-class students and students of color, and provide our own vision of democratic, grassroots school reform.

Unfortunately, UTLA had a small presence at the school board meeting and only secured a single three-minute speaking slot (supporters of the motion got at least a dozen slots). The union will need to bring a stronger message to next month's board meeting.

The school board is taking advantage of the fact that many teacher activists are on summer vacation and are exhausted from this year's long and difficult fight to stop layoffs and budget cuts.

UTLA leaders are still in negotiations with LAUSD to try to reverse the layoffs before the start of the new school year, but LAUSD is demanding steep concessions on teacher pay in exchange for any jobs restored. If a deal is reached this summer, it would have to be approved by UTLA members through mail-in ballots.

Progressive activists in UTLA are getting together in several conferences over the summer to brainstorm strategies for building a stronger movement. We will need to connect our fight against layoffs and budget cuts with a public campaign to challenge the growth of charter schools that seek to dismantle public education altogether.

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