If you’re suffering a bad-news hangover, I have a cure — and it’s not a shot of tomato juice and some equally bad or worse news. It’s actual great news: In just one year, a historically failing elementary school in a tough part of Anaheim has produced an educational turnaround that would be called a miracle if it weren’t so utterly predictable.
State testing shows that Palm Lane Elementary School students are performing at levels unthinkable just one year ago. In 13 of 14 learning categories, students showed improvement for the first time in more than 10 years. In many cases, these gains were significant, with up to 41 percent increases in academic achievement.
There’s a simple reason for this radical turnaround. A little more than a year ago, Palm Lane transformed from a neighborhood school, under the influence of the powerful California Teachers Association, into a non-union, independent public charter school.
Unlike traditional schools, charter schools aren’t straitjacketed by union work rules. They’re accountable to just one constituency, parents — not district staff, teachers unions, activists, or district trustees who do the unions’ bidding.
Children trapped in failing schools run by teachers unions are hostages, unless they move to a better school district, attend private school, or get into a public charter school.
In a charter school, by contrast, you can leave anytime. And if you do so, the state money the charter collected for teaching your child goes with you. When schools must compete to keep their customers happy, students win. It worked at Palm Lane.
How was Palm Lane able to transition into a charter school? By taking the fight to the powerful California Teachers Association.
Parents were frustrated by more than a decade of failure at the school, which routinely processed neighborhood children as if they were commodities. It collected more than $10,000 per year for each of its students and promoted them annually as if the teachers taught and their students learned.
State data revealed the ugly reality: few students of Palm Lane Elementary could read, write, or do math at grade level. In 2017, fewer than 18 percent of Palm Lane students were reading at grade level, and fewer than 14 percent performed at grade level in math. They were woefully unprepared for middle school — never mind life.
So, parents, backed by local conservatives, leveraged California’s 2010 Parent Empowerment Act, the “parent trigger” law, to begin what should have been the simple process of transforming their lousy district school into an independent public charter school. They gathered 332 parent signatures and filed them with the appropriate authorities. Then they watched, bewildered, as their own district officials sued them, ultimately fighting all the way to the state Supreme Court.
District officials tried to paint over the school’s problems — literally repainted the school and hung upbeat posters in the hallways. Meanwhile, they litigated, blowing nearly a million dollars on court costs. A judge ultimately ruled in favor of the parents, concluding the district had established a “defective practice” and “feigned ignorance” to invalidate petition signatures.
All over Southern California, there are examples of the power of parent choice in public education. Like Palm Lane, Los Angeles Unified’s Twentieth Street Elementary failed its students so routinely that failure ought to have become the school’s motto (“Semper deficient”?). Now a charter school, “Twentieth Street boasts some of the most improved math scores in the district,” former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wrote recently.
How did that happen? Parent involvement, the former mayor wrote. “Parents are more dedicated to putting kids first than any other stakeholder is. While teachers, administrators and education reformers all care deeply about students, the politics of public education are largely driven by the interests of adults because kids can’t vote and parents don’t have lobbyists.“
At San Diego’s aptly named Samuel Gompers Elementary School, an ossified teachers union faculty cranked out failing students for years until parents, frustrated teachers, and a visionary principal revolted. They transformed Gompers into a charter and reversed the school’s dismal trajectory.
But the teachers union does not surrender easily. At Gompers, a few union activists worked with a union-friendly San Diego school board to turn the entire faculty into a local unit of the California Teachers Association. Outraged non-union teachers and parents in the school community are now engaged in something like hand-to-hand combat over the school’s future.
“The San Diego Educators Association is destroying everything we achieved as a charter school – all the freedom we had to really teach,” said an anti-union Gompers teacher. “It’s sad, but I worry that this (success) might have just been a blip.”
Always lurking the background — and sometimes in the headlines — teachers union organizers deploy their huge resources to destroy the movement for parent choice.
In the state legislative session that just ended, the teachers union deployed hundreds of members and millions of dollars in an effort to kill charter schools.
They were met in the Capitol by parents – black, brown, white, Asian, working and middle class. When the votes were tallied, the parents had fought the once-unbeatable teachers union to a draw — more evidence that teachers unions are losing their standing in the poor communities they claim to serve.
For the kids at Palm Lane and those at other high-quality public charters, a good education means huge lifelong gains — in earnings, health, self-sufficiency, and community participation. Palm Lane’s experience reveals the path to achieve these outcomes. Now we need to clear the obstacles teacher union leaders have put in their way.
* * *
Will Swaim is president of California Policy Center, and cohost of National Review’s Radio Free California podcast. This commentary first appeared in the LA Daily News and the Orange County Register.