ACLU Turns its Back on LA's Poorest Students in Attack on Charter Schools

The ACLU has aimed its considerable legal firepower at charter schools. The reason? They aren’t enough like our failing traditional public schools.

In a recent report, the ACLU condemns 253 California charter schools for what it sees as a violation of discrimination law, citing examples of charter schools requiring consistent attendance and, in some cases, prerequisites for admission. Although the schools on the ACLU list represent only 20 percent of all charter schools in California, the ACLU declares that these exclusionary practices are likely only the “tip of the iceberg.”

The ACLU is right to focus on the challenges facing low-income students. But charter schools are generally better than traditional, union-controlled schools — and inarguably prefered by charter students and their parents. Studies consistently show that charter schools generate better results for low-income kids.

Yet, in choosing to critique charter schools, the ACLU is once again failing to address the real problem with public education: teacher union control of public education.

20160915-cpc-acluACLU headquarters at 1313 W 8th St. in downtown Los Angeles
Whose side are they on? The teachers union? Or underprivileged students?

Consider the group’s high-profile 2010 case Reed v. California. Reed began in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when the Los Angeles Unified School District pink-slipped thousands of teachers. Because of its agreement with United Teachers of Los Angeles, the district canned the teachers based on seniority alone – not because of performance. Where do the least-senior teachers begin their Los Angeles teaching careers? In its worst-performing schools.

The ACLU, citing equal protection concerns, asked a superior court judge to stop the madness.

In 2010, the judge allowed the ACLU and LAUSD to work out a settlement that, ACLU said, “marks a departure from the LAUSD’s long-standing ‘last hired, first fired’ policy that determines layoffs solely by seniority.” The settlement banned the practice of seniority-based layoffs in 45 under-performing “Reed schools.”

Because the settlement struck at the heart of the union seniority system, it was probably predictable that United Teachers of Los Angeles filed an appeal to overturn it.

The Court of Appeals granted the union’s request on a technicality: UTLA, the court said, was not given a proper hearing in the original trial, even though the settlement directly affected a core policy of the teachers union contract.

When it became clear that UTLA would dedicate its vast resources to fighting the ACLU in court, both parties decided to settle. By April 2014, the ACLU, LAUSD and UTLA had reached an agreement that preserved the union’s power: taxpayers in the district would pay $25 million per year for three years to support “additional assistant principals, counselors and special education support staff, expanding professional development for teachers and administrators, offering a bonus to retain and recruit principals to these high-need schools, and selecting experienced mentor teachers from school staffs,” the ACLU proclaimed.

Was the real headline – as the ACLU’s April 2014 press release had it – “Settlement of Reed lawsuit delivers for students at 37 struggling L.A. schools”? Or was it that the ACLU, LAUSD and UTLA had forced district taxpayers to pay more to sustain the union’s system of seniority, a system that the ACLU had previously asserted was violating the equal protection guarantee of the California Constitution? Evidence points to the latter.

This wasn’t the first time that LAUSD had committed to providing more resources to schools in low-income neighborhoods. In fact, an earlier court case had resulted in a very similar policy to address a very similar problem.

Rodriguez v. LAUSD was filed in 1986 and argued that schools in low-income neighborhoods suffer because they often lack a stable corps of veteran teachers. The case resulted in the Rodriguez Consent Decree, which ruled that LAUSD must make efforts to achieve an equitable balance of veteran and new teachers across all schools. In addition to filling vacancies in schools in high-income areas with new teachers and filling vacancies in schools in low-income areas with more experienced teachers, the district committed $11 million per year on teacher training for schools in low-income areas.

Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, the strategy of committing more resources didn’t work then and it isn’t working now.

Over a decade after the Rodriguez Consent Decree took effect, the nonprofit Education Trust-West published a report claiming LAUSD still had not achieved an equitable distribution of experienced teachers among its schools. Academic results remained poor. But in 2006, rather than ramping up efforts to achieve educational equality, the courts rejected efforts to renew the Rodriguez Consent Decree for an additional five years. Judge Joanne O’Donnell apparently agreed with district lawyer John Walsh, who declared that an extension was unnecessary because “we have outlived it.”

And today, two years after the Reed settlement, schools in low-income areas are still primarily staffed by new and inexperienced teachers, and the district still targets those teachers for layoffs.

If the ACLU really wants to help students in low-income neighborhoods, it should return to the root problem: the “last in, first out” system perpetuated by UTLA. The ACLU has the opportunity to do so by supporting the plaintiffs in Vergara v California, a suit that argues children have a right to effective instructors, and among other things, challenges the constitutionality of seniority.

There’s ample evidence that this modest change would dramatically change the lives of individuals and transform communities. Stanford economist Raj Chetty, for instance, estimates “students would gain $2.1 million in lifetime earnings if California used effectiveness-based layoffs instead of seniority-based layoffs.”

However, instead of supporting the students in Vergara, the ACLU has turned its attention to charter schools, the only part of the public education system which functions without union interference. The ACLU has sued charter schools time and again. Meanwhile, it settles for a status quo in public schools that has repeatedly proven ineffective.

ACLU rose to prominence as an organization that defended the indefensible and challenged established institutions. Charter schools are a continuation of this entrepreneurial spirit, and their success represents what other public schools could be if freed from the demands of government-union control.

David Schwartzman is a junior studying economics and applied mathematics at Hillsdale College. Blake Dixon is a senior at Yale majoring in economics. They are journalism fellows at the California Policy Center in Tustin. This article first appeared in The Daily Journal.

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