Battling Broad’s charter attack in LA

November 17, 2015

Los Angeles teachers and UTLA members Randy Childs and Gillian Russom explain the backdrop of a new battle against school privatization.

ON THE heels of a big contract campaign that won a 10 percent raise, unprecedented caps on class sizes and other gains for our schools, the 31,000 members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) have another major battle on our hands over the future of public education in our city--a battle with national implications.

Last week, thousands of UTLA members walked picket lines in front of our schools, demanding that the school board for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) condemn a plan hatched by local billionaire Eli Broad to raise $500 million to double the number of LAUSD students attending charter schools. Broad's stated goal is for charter schools to reach 50 percent "market share" of LAUSD students. In response, UTLA members declared, "Billionaires can't run our schools!"

Eli Broad made his fortune in the real estate and insurance industries and has no experience working as an educator. Yet he has leveraged his vast wealth to become one of the most influential educational policymakers in the U.S.

UTLA members on the picket line against school privatization
UTLA members on the picket line against school privatization (UTLA)

In 1999, Broad started a "venture philanthropy" organization, which he humbly named the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Since then, the Broad Foundation has funneled over $600 million into education initiatives that conform to Broad's vision of "school reform": privatize and deregulate public education, run schools like businesses, and blame everything bad on teachers and our unions. Broad's plan for LA states that it will be a "proof point" for the privatization of schools nationwide.

Los Angeles already has over 150,000 children in charter schools, more than any other city in the nation. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are run by private management organizations, the largest of which see the schools they run as direct competitors to neighborhood public schools in the "education marketplace."

Almost all charter-school teachers and staff have no union representation, are at-will employees, and have no protection against excessive workload mandates. As a result, charter schools have significantly higher teacher turnover rates than even LAUSD schools, where classrooms are overcrowded, and teachers aren't given nearly adequate resources to serve the needs of students suffering extreme poverty.

UTLA's contract gives its members a wide range of benefits and protections, including lifetime health benefits with no premiums, due process rights against arbitrary or retaliatory termination, duty-free lunch breaks and the right to a voice at school via shared decision-making councils.

If Broad's plan comes to fruition, 10,000 UTLA jobs could be destroyed and more teachers would be pushed into the unlimited workloads, lack of job security and substandard health benefits that prevail in most charter schools.

OF COURSE, Broad isn't selling his plan as a way to dismantle a crucial public service, destroy thousands of stable union jobs, and push teachers out of the public sector into the abyss of market-driven precarious employment. Broad calls his proposal "Great Public Schools Now" and says its goal is to "ensure that every student can access a great public school." What could be bad about a man all the newspapers call a "philanthropist" raising half a billion dollars for "great public schools" for low-income students?

But take a closer look at the Broad plan--which was only revealed to the public when Los Angeles Times reporter Howard Blume started writing about it in August and published the Broad Foundation's 44-page internal report on the plan in September--and you find the contradiction between what Broad and his fellow reformers consider the problems and the solutions in public education.

The report blames "chronically low-performing schools" and "harmful teacher tenure policies" for the challenges facing LAUSD students, especially low-income students of color--but says nothing about whether the effects of poverty or institutional racism beyond the schools has any effect on children's learning conditions. Bad teaching is diagnosed as the problem, but the report offers no proposals at all about what teachers teach or how we teach our students.

The sciences of child development, pedagogy or the human brain are of no apparent interest to these self-appointed saviors of education. To them, the solutions all lie in relying on the magical powers of market competition to force public schools to teach better and increasing management's power to impose harsh labor discipline on educators. Of course, these are neoliberal capitalism's "solutions" for everything.

The report also relies on questionable research studies from the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) to claim that charter schools in LA provide "79 more days of learning in math and 50 more days of learning in reading"--despite the CREDO study author's own warnings that their numbers "should be interpreted cautiously."

In addition to the fact that Broad's plan is a war on good UTLA jobs, it's important to understand that none of this $500 million would actually pay for even one book, one computer or one teacher in any school in Los Angeles. Like the LAUSD bureaucracy he pretends to condemn, Broad wants to spend all the money outside the classroom:

$280 million would go to leveraging real estate developments and purchases to create new charter schools. Meanwhile, existing LAUSD schools often wait months or even years for needed building repairs or technology upgrades.

$135 million would go to providing "philanthropic capital" to charter management organizations and "edupreneurs" so they can "expand the footprint" of charter schools in Los Angeles. This money will help these private entities cover the administrative costs of pulling students out of their current public schools, instead of simply providing resources immediately to these students at the schools they attend now.

$46 million would go to Teach for America and other pro-privatization "training" programs dedicated to replacing experienced, university-trained educators with inexperienced, undertrained "interns" with no intentions of teaching for more than a couple of years. Instead of providing more support for existing teachers in LA's underfunded schools, Broad wants to give money to organizations intent on turning our profession into high-turnover, hyper-exploited contingency work.

$21 million is earmarked for a massive PR campaign to gain political support for the plan to counter "the increased resistance that can be expected" from UTLA "as the charter sector consumes more market share." Instead of helping teachers, Broad wants to wage a multi-million dollar political war against us and our union.

There's even $8 million for "Fund Management"--which means hiring an executive director with a quarter-million dollar compensation package and three assistant directors for almost as much!

Last month, Broad indicated what these four new corporate bureaucrats would be asked to do when he appointed former Louisiana Superintendent of Public Education Paul Pastorek to lead the Broad Foundation's educational initiatives. Pastorek is best known for overseeing the dismantling of the entire New Orleans public education system into charter schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Broad's goal is to export the New Orleans model of privatization and union busting to Los Angeles and then across the country.

IN THE face of this frontal attack from the billionaires, UTLA has its work cut out for it--but the union has taken some positive steps to begin the fightback. On September 20, the union drew major media attention when it organized a rally of 1,000 members outside the grand opening of Broad's lavish new modern art museum in downtown Los Angeles.

As UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl told the rally crowd:

Deregulation has not worked in our economy. It has not worked in health care. It has not worked in housing. It is not going to work in public education. Deregulation leaves people behind. It creates inappropriate competition in public education, and it creates a race to the bottom in learning conditions and working conditions.

Caputo-Pearl also took direct aim at the New Orleans model, citing multiple studies that show Paul Pastorek's crowning achievement of an all-charter "recovery school district" is responsible for rampant civil rights violations against African American students, English learners, and students with disabilities.

UTLA also invited New Orleans parent and education advocate Karran Harper Royal to speak at the rally about what the charter takeover means for parents and students in her city:

We can't even choose the school in our neighborhood, even if we wanted it. We would have to go into a lottery. So my son had to take a city bus on the corner by a charter school to go across town to go to another charter school. Whose choice was this? It wasn't my choice! So when they tell you that this is about giving parents choices, what this does is take away our choices and put the choices into the hands of those who want to profit off of our public education.

OVER THE summer, UTLA adopted an eight-point strategic plan to take on the multiple threats facing the union. The plan includes a call for a dues increase of $19 a month in order to get UTLA out of its structural deficit and provide the resources necessary to fund an organizing approach to these threats. Members will vote on this "Build the Future--Fund the Fight" plan in the spring.

UTLA recently consolidated a coalition of all eight LAUSD unions, which spoke out in opposition to Broad's plan at the October 8 school board meeting.

UTLA is also pushing the school board and the state to pass regulations for transparency and accountability from all schools that receive public funds. Currently, many charter management organizations hide their decisions from the public and push out students with the greatest needs in order to improve their test scores.

Unfortunately, the seven-member school board includes two Broad allies who have supported charter expansion over the years, even though charters are draining enrollment from the district itself. The union has clarified that any candidate seeking its endorsement must publicly oppose the Broad plan.

UTLA is developing several other elements of a strategy to challenge Broad. It is working to build a long-term coalition of community organizations in support of its "Schools LA Students Deserve" platform and opposed to the billionaire agenda. Like the Chicago Teachers Union in its current contract campaign, UTLA is also promoting sustainable community schools--which provide a rich, community-connected curriculum and wraparound services for families--as an alternative to the corporate, test-driven model.

Finally, UTLA is engaged in a critical campaign to organize the teachers and counselors for Alliance of College-Ready Public Schools--the largest CMO in Los Angeles. The Alliance is repeatedly highlighted for praise in the Broad plan as a "respected" and "high-performing" chain of charter schools.

But on October 27, Alliance was slapped with a restraining order for a wide range of illegal intimidation and interference tactics against the unionization campaign. In one particularly outrageous example, Alliance eliminated physics classes from one of its "college-ready" high schools--ignoring the protests of students, parents and teachers alike--because the physics teacher Albert Chu is an outspoken union supporter.

Supporting charter-school teachers' campaigns to fight for their rights and those of their students is an important part of the challenge to the billionaires' scheme. UTLA will need massive member involvement in its organizing campaigns in order to be able to push back on the Broad plan. And we will need solidarity and concrete support from the labor movement and community activists in Los Angeles and nationally.

Just as Broad sees Los Angeles as a "proof point" for his strategy of privatization, we must see this struggle as a "proof point" for social justice unionism.

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