LA Story: The Poorer You Are, the More Likely You Are to Support Charters

Los Angeles school teachers gathered in August in the posh, iconic – and for the group, weirdly ironic – Westin Bonaventure Hotel. They heard their union’s leaders extol their role as revolutionary defenders of the city’s poorest communities against the wealthy.

But that’s not how the city’s poor have seen it. The poorer you are, it turns out, the more likely you are to believe LA school district leaders have stranded the poor, data reviewed by the California Policy Center suggests.

It’s actually the rich who tend to like the teachers union – a fact that seems to turn the whole class-conflict paradigm on its head. While wealthy Angelenos on the north and west sides of the Los Angeles School District support the teachers union, generally poorer neighborhoods in the south and east often elect reform-minded candidates to the board of education.

CPC evaluated school district representatives – rating them either reformers or union supporters – and overlaid LA Unified’s seven local school districts with a neighborhood income map. The results are conclusive: Voters in the highest-income areas, namely Bel-Air, Porter Ranch, and Beverly Crest elected Steve Zimmer, Scott Schmerelson and Monica Ratliff – all union supporters. Voters in the poorest-income areas – downtown, South Gate and Wilmington elected Monica Garcia, Ref Rodriguez and Richard Vladovic – all reformers backed by charter school advocates.

The split between the high- and low-income voting preferences also correlates with the Academic Performance Index of schools (API). Wealthy families have access to better schools and are therefore likely more satisfied with the status quo. Conversely, poor families send their children public schools that provide a lower level education and therefore have more reason to hope and vote for change. Large neighborhood high schools in LAUSD’s three northern districts averaged an API of 702. Their counterparts in the poorer southern districts averaged 660.

(Perhaps the worst news: even the best public schools are underperforming. California’s state target API score is 800 – 98 points above the north LA average.)

Sean Corcoran, a professor of Educational Economics at New York University, has seen this phenomenon before

“We find that low school quality – as measured by standardized tests – is a consistent and modestly strong predictor of support for charters,” Corcoran observed in a 2011 paper on Washington State Charter Schools.

It’s obvious – but jarring if you listen teachers union leaders.

At their July 31 conference, United Teachers Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl depicted a Los Angeles in which the wealthy are working overtime to destroy public education.

“Billionaires across the country are looking at Los Angeles as the next and biggest opportunity to privatize and profit from the education of children,” he said. “From late August to late September, over 70 billboards, signs, bus benches and more will carry our messages that billionaires should not be driving the public school agenda, and that amazing people work in our public schools every day.”

Caputo-Pearl mentioned “billionaires” six times in his speech and “money” five times.

Ironically, the billionaires running charter schools occasionally represent LA’s best educational hope. In a 2015 comparison of union schools and charters, my colleagues at the California Policy Center found that charters cost less and teach students more effectively than union schools. In standardized testing, study authors Marc Joffe and Ed Ring noted, “Charter students outperformed the LAUSD traditional students with average [SAT] scores of 1417 to 1299.”

That performance difference might explain more than anything the preference among less wealthy voters for charter schools. Now, at last, those poorer Angelenos have a choice in schools, just like parents in LA’s richest neighborhoods. The poor are finding their voice, and they’re using it to say they want real education for their children.

Their votes have a tangible impact on the board, where the union/reform divide appears frequently. On March 8, the WISH academy (a network of two charter schools operating just west of Inglewood) petitioned to form a high school. Union-backed Steve Zimmer, the district board’s president, moved a motion to deny the petition on alleged financial grounds. When the motion was not seconded, second district trustee Garcia, a reformer, moved a motion to approve the academy charter. Third-district trustee Rodriguez, a public proponent of charters, seconded Garcia’s motion immediately.

After a two-hour debate, they voted. Garcia, Rodriguez, and Richard Vladovic (all reform-funded) voted yes. Monica Ratliff, a young, former teacher from the sixth district, joined them. George McKenna III and Scott Schmerelson voted no. As candidates, both were funded and endorsed by United Teachers Los Angeles. Zimmer had the last vote – and at 4-2, he could safely take a bold stand either for or against the charter school. Instead, Zimmer abstained.

Adam Jacobs is an intern at the California Policy Center. He attends George Washington University in Washington D.C.

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