Tilt­ing at char­ter schools

It’s time for the teach­ers union to stop wast­ing its time and ef­fort on un­rea­son­able new rules.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

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 low­in­come 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 low­per­form­ing 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.

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