In public ed, money doesn’t always produce quality

By R. Claire Friend
June 5, 2017

Three of the nation’s five most expensive schools are in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Each ranks among the lowest performing schools in California.

With a $578 million price tag, Robert F. Kennedy Learning Center is the most expensive school ever built. Boasting an auditorium modeled after the famous Coconut Grove nightclub, a state-of-the-art swimming pool and a marble memorial to RFK, it ranks worse than 53% of California’s middle schools and 68% of its high schools. The elementary school performs worse than 70% of its peers.

Edward Roybal Learning Center cost $377 million. The 23-year project has a 418-car underground parking garage, a dance studio and 73,000 square feet of classroom space. 42% of its graduates are proficient in reading; 17%, in math. 30% are college ready.

At a comparatively modest $232 million, Central #9 Visual and Performing Arts Center has a 950-seat performing arts center, a 300-car parking garage, a TV studio and an outdoor atrium for Japanese Roku pottery. Just 17% of its students are proficient in math.

Belmont High School, another LAUSD school, is built atop an earthquake fault and a toxic dump and may eventually cost billions. The school scores lower than 60% of its peers.

These colossi, built as temples to the egos of politicians and union bosses, rob the children with whom they have been entrusted and the taxpayers whom they have victimized.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Money may buy amazing facilities, but it doesn’t necessarily produce education. Overall, LAUSD performs worse than two-thirds of California’s 864 school districts, a poor return on the taxpayers’ investment.

In contrast, some of the best schools have comparatively small price tags. Pacific Collegiate High Charter in Santa Cruz and Oxford Academy in Cypress rank first and second in the state and among the top 12 in the nation. Both have 100% college readiness. Neither broke the bank.

Pacific Collegiate held its first classes in a rented church and an empty elementary school before moving into its permanent home. $9Million paid for the renovation of the abandoned two-story former commercial site that houses the state’s top school. RFK’s marble memorial at his eponymous learning center cost more.

LAUSD’s handful of best schools tend to be charters. Students at Alliance Dr. Olga Mohan, Alliance College Ready Academy and Camino Nueveo #2 come from the same neighborhoods as those at the most expensive schools but score in the top quartile of California high schools.

Traditionally, it has been the brainpower of the students that defines the best schools. Admission to the top three high schools in New York City is mandated by law to be based solely on the student’s score on an entrance exam. Tens of thousands apply each year.

Bronx High School of Science, founded in 1938, has graduated the highest number of Nobel Laureates of any secondary school in the world. Every year, 23,000 students apply for 1000 available seats. Peter Stuyvesant High School, founded in 1904, has 30,000 applicants for 800 open spots. Alums include four Nobel Laureates. Brooklyn Technical School, founded in 1922, graduated two Nobel Laureates.

The trio of schools has consistently ranked among the top 100 schools in the country and produced thousands of renowned scientists, physicians, educators, engineers and corporate titans. The classrooms in the original brick buildings (built at modest cost) are still occupied by students seated at inexpensive desks.

Boston Latin School is the first public school in the United States. Founded in 1635, it has always been one of nation’s top 50 schools. Its 2000 students have 100% Advanced Placement participation and 100% proficiency in English and math. Of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence, five were educated at Boston Latin. Like its austere New England setting, the school is modest in appearance.

The state of public education has deteriorated considerably since the storied founding of Boston Latin. Far too many of today’s schools are failing, particularly those in New York and Los Angeles, the country’s two largest school districts.

Public charter schools represent one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal picture. Unlike the schools whose students are the country’s most gifted, the youngsters admitted to public charter schools are among its most disadvantaged, economically and academically.

Drawn primarily from low-income, minority families living in the poorest neighborhoods, they have the least chance for success. Surprisingly, they are the most responsive to charter schools and demonstrate the greatest gains. Good charter schools can be transformational, not unlike military boot camp. Like boot camp, it can save lives.

The Success Academy network of public charter schools in New York City, founded in 2006 by Stuyvesant High School alum Eva Moskowitz, has 98-99% proficiency rates in English and math. The regular public schools with whom they share space often score in the single digits or low-mid teens.

Her schools produce different results from the identical population. The secret lies in the discipline she introduces. Administered far more harshly by gunny sergeants, it is called tough love.

Moskowitz insists on strict rules, long days (from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), homework, dress and behavior codes and consequences for any infractions. Her curriculum is demanding and emphasizes reading. A literature director oversees the selections for the curriculum and library. Prizes are awarded to students who read the greatest number. Moskowitz plans to expand her network of 41 schools into 100.

Founded in 1996 by Anne Tisch, wife of real estate mogul Richard Tisch, every graduate of The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem has been admitted to college. TYWLS was the first new all-girls’ public school in the United States in 20 years. Its students have often gotten the highest scores on the prestigious New York State Regents exam.

Starting with 56 seventh-graders, TYWLS has grown into a network of five schools in NYC and 14 nationwide affiliates. In its 20-year history, TYWLS has sent more than 10,000 girls to college. They now serve more than 18,000 students in the 6t-12 grades. TYWLS’s record rivals or beats that of many white middle- and upper-class private schools.

The stated mission of the Boys Latin School of Philadelphia Charter, founded in 2007, is to develop a young man’s moral, intellectual, social, creative and athletic potential. The focus is on the importance of character.  Students at the small school get a classical education. There are extended days and bi-weekly Saturday classes. Incoming freshman attend a six-week academic preparatory program before they matriculate. Fully 97% of the graduates are admitted to college. The academics are intense. It is the Parris Island for boys from the ‘hood.

California’s public schools are a stark contrast. They have a disappointing record. Our schools are among the worst performers in the country. Because of union resistance, failing schools are allowed to operate for years and to challenge in court any attempt to force them to change.

The growth in the state’s network of charter schools is a reason to hope that the dismal situation may change. Six of US News and World Report’s 2017 list of the 10 best schools are charter schools. Four of those charters are in California.

The Samueli Academy must be added to the list of great schools. Opened just four years ago, the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) public charter high school has already garnered a California Gold Ribbon.

The brainchild of Susan Samueli, wife of Broadcom co-founder Henry Samueli, and Sandi Jackson, the school is a program of the Orangewood Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to at-risk youngsters in the foster care system.

Funded by the $25 million in donations raised by Orangewood and a $10 million gift from the Samuelis, the school purchased a 7-acre lot in Santa Ana with enough room for the building that houses classrooms, labs, studios and administrative offices and the three residential units yet to be built.

The students are drawn from low-income, minority families; 83% are Hispanic. Forty-plus live or have lived in foster homes. All of the students take introductory courses in engineering as well as design, then choose one of the pathways before their sophomore year.

What makes Samueli great? Each of the 500 students is given his own laptop. The school’s main focus is on technology and project-based learning. It offers summer internships with local corporations and agencies to provide possible career opportunities.

The students look and act businesslike. It is a new experience for most of them, one that enhances self-esteem and confidence. The program is always in great demand.

The non-union teaching staff is enthusiastic and committed to the students’ success. That shows up in rigorous curriculum and high GPAs – more than half of all students clock in at 3.0 or better. They are expected to dress professionally. Most have a nearly perfect attendance record. School teams (called the Werewolves) compete in basketball, volleyball, soccer and golf.

Samueli offers Advanced Placement classes in biology, calculus, chemistry, English language, English literature, environmental science, European history, physics, Spanish language and Spanish literature. Students can earn college credit in the “dual-credit” classes offered by Santa Ana College.

Each of the two engineering instructors has decades of experience in private industry. Engineering students from UCI are available as classroom mentors in chemistry, engineering and math and in Solid Works in the CAD lab. The Samueli students are described as quick learners and very bright.

The engineering class recently completed a project challenge. Teams built gravity-tiered irrigation systems modeled on the 2,000-year-old Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines and successfully demonstrated their operation, a remarkable feat for a group of 15 year olds.

The school has an outdoor elevated garden that produces herbs and vegetables in a hydroponic environment. The eco-friendly system uses recirculated water and is fertilized using the waste created in a large koi-filled tank. All of the produce is consumed at school by the students or taken home by students and school employees. The innovative system is part of the environmental science curriculum.

The qualities that make Samueli and the other charter schools great also make them targets of the teachers unions.

California’s 2015 statewide high school graduation rate was 82.3%. The rate for charter high schools was 84%. Samueli Academy’s graduation rate will be in the mid-nineties.

For comparison, LAUSD reported a 77% graduation rate. But 53% of those graduates had a D average – a GPA that makes them ineligible for admission to the state’s public university system. Their diplomas are worthless. Thus far, there has been no public comment from district officials on their fraud.

The deplorable state of public education, poor student outcomes and low scores on international assessments in reading and math represent a national crisis. Aptly labeled  A Nation at Risk, the situation first described in the 1983 report has become critical.

It mirrors the failures of the National Education Association whose true failure can be measured in the millions of young lives crippled by pregnancy, drugs, crime and hopelessness.

Charter schools offer a possible remedy. Emphasizing hard work, extended schooldays, structure, discipline, strict rules, dress and behavior codes and high expectations. Good schools are transformational.

Having grown up without fathers themselves in most cases, mothers in the inner city instinctively sense the benefits the school environment can have on their child’s life and his prospects for a better future. The waiting lists understandably have thousands of names on them written by thousands of hopeful mothers wanting to give their child that chance. To have her child’s name selected is, literally, to win the lottery.

Charter school advocates Eli Broad, Betsy DeVos, Kenneth Langone and the Walton Family have donated millions to improve the odds of academic success for the nation’s most disadvantaged children. They deserve our gratitude. The teachers union leaders deserve our contempt.

Claire Friend, MD

Member of the California Policy Center’s Advisory Board

Assistant Clinical Professor, Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UCI

Editor, UCI Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry

MORE GREAT ARTICLES

The California Policy Center is a 501c3 non-profit public charity. CA Corp. # 3295222. Federal EIN 27-2870463.
Copyright © California Policy Center 2017. All rights reserved. Developed by The Liberty Lab, Inc.