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.

ACLU Joins Unions to Attack California Charter Schools

About 6.2 million students attend California’s K-12 public schools. Of those, over 570,000 are enrolled in public charter schools. Most of these charter schools operate with a degree of management autonomy and teacher accountability that goes well beyond what is permitted by the union work rules that govern traditional public schools. These charter schools themselves are accountable – if they don’t deliver better academic outcomes cost-effectively, they are closed down. They are a laboratory for excellence in education and administration, and they’re working. And their success is a tremendous threat to teachers unions.

Enter the ACLU. In a study released earlier this week, the ACLU said it had identified 253 schools with “exclusionary policies,” and noted “this is just the tip of the iceberg.” The exclusionary policies were (1) exclusion based on academic performance, (2) discrimination against English learners, (3) pre-enrollment essays or interviews, (4) illegal parent/guardian volunteer requirements, (5) requirements that discourage undocumented students.

If you consider the ACLU case on its merits, there isn’t much to argue about. Traditional public schools receive funding to admit all students, and charter public schools must do the same. But the entire premise is flawed: schools should be able to develop unique identities in order to offer a diverse set of educational choices to our diverse student population.

Examples of such diversity are inspiring, and range from the Eagle Academy in Harlem, which is attended almost exclusively by African American young men, or the Detroit International Academy for Young Women. These schools deliver outstanding academic results, they cannot possibly admit everyone who wants to attend, and they are exclusionary.

Some of the premises underlying the ACLU’s case are easily contestable, because they are rooted in a concession to mediocrity that has taken over public schools. Instead of making charter schools change their policies, why not change the rules? For example, why aren’t all public schools engaging in “pre-enrollment essays or interviews”? Why don’t all public schools require parents to volunteer some time at the school?

As for violation No. 2 – our public schools are academically segregated as it is, with the high-achieving students exclusively taking AP courses that relegate their exposure to the rest of the student body to hallways and common areas. Should a charter school focus on attracting top students? And if some of them did, how would that differ from what already occurs with AP courses?

The ACLU’s case with respect to the other violations is, at least, easier to justify on moral grounds. Of course we should be admitting students who don’t speak English as a first language. Of course we have to educate children regardless of their immigration status. But the vast majority of charter schools aren’t trying to exclude these students. Most charter schools are non-profits, with supplemental funding provided by philanthropists with the noblest of intentions. Charter schools are an attempt to deliver educational excellence in communities with some of the worst-performing traditional public schools in the U.S. The ACLU is missing the forest for the trees.

If the ACLU wants to fix public education, it might throw its considerable legal might behind the upcoming final round of the Vergara case, likely to be heard in the California Supreme Court next year. The plaintiffs in this case argued that the right to a quality public education is a civil right, and that students in low-income communities are denied that right through inferior public schools. They specifically challenged three union work rules which they demonstrated had a disproportionately negative impact on education in low-income communities: (1) granting teacher tenure after less than two years of classroom observation, (2) “last-in, first-out” policies whereby seniority trumps merit in layoffs, and (3) dismissal procedures so onerous that incompetent teachers are almost never fired.

Where is the ACLU with respect to Vergara?

The ACLU has a well-earned reputation for impartiality. When it comes to civil rights issues they are as likely to defend someone on the far right as someone on the far left. For this they have earned animosity and respect, depending on whom you ask. But if the ACLU intends to be truly impartial on the civil right to a quality education, at the least it may use its resources to support the plaintiffs in the Vergara case.

As for the ACLU’s salvo against charter schools? The organization should realize that charter school operators are almost invariably motivated by nothing more than providing excellent education to underprivileged students. They should be making it easier for them to do that, not more difficult.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

The Media and Teachers Unions: Creepy Crass Actors

Joining a racially charged situation, largely inflamed by the media, the nation’s teachers unions hypocritically play the civil rights card.

To acknowledge the obvious, the February 26, 2012 events in Sanford, FL were tragic. Trayvon Martin is dead and George Zimmerman will be haunted – and very possibly hunted – for the rest of his life. While there are gray areas of the incident where good people can disagree, there is one overarching truth that cannot be denied: Much of the nation’s mainstream media behaved in a downright despicable way. They have done everything possible to stoke racial tensions with exaggeration, misrepresentation, pandering, deceit and lies. Just a few examples:

  • March 21, 2012 – CNN accused Zimmerman of using a racial slur, which two weeks later it later retracted.
  • March 22, 2012 – Zimmerman, of mixed race, was dubbed by the New York Times a “white Hispanic.”
  • March 27, 2012 – NBC edited a tape to make Zimmerman appear to be a racist.
  • March 28, 2012 – ABC News falsely claims Zimmerman wasn’t injured the night of shooting.

The whole narrative of Zimmerman as a rabid Klansman also disintegrates when you look at what the vast majority of the media didn’t report:

  • He is of white and Afro-Peruvian descent.
  • He and a black friend partnered in opening an insurance office in a Florida.
  • He’d engaged in notably un-racist behavior, such as taking a black girl to his high-school prom.
  • He tutored underprivileged black kids.
  • He launched a campaign to help a homeless black man who was beaten up by the son of a white cop.

Now here’s where we go from contemptible to perverse. The heads of the two national teachers unions – Dennis Van Roekel (National Education Association) and Randi Weingarten (American Federation of Teachers) – are leading the charge to put Zimmerman behind bars by any means necessary. The two bosses urged their members to sign petitions to the Justice Department, saying that “Zimmerman must face the consequences of his actions.”

All of a sudden the teachers unions are worried about civil rights??!! What a brazen and sleazy attempt to divert attention from their day-to-day “we-really-don’t-give-a-crap-about-the-kids-but-can’t-come-out-and-directly-say-it” modus operandi. To wit:

  • In 2009, desperate to kill Washington, D.C.’s popular and successful opportunity scholarship program, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel wrote a threatening letter to every Democratic member of Congress. The union boss clearly declared that NEA strongly opposes the continuation of the DC private school voucher program. He went on to say that he expected that any member of Congress whom the union has supported will vote against extending the program and warned that, “Actions associated with these issues WILL be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 111th Congress … Vouchers are not real education reform. . . . Opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.”

The sad fact is that DC public schools have the lowest NAEP scores and the highest dropout rate in the country, whereas just about every student in the voucher program graduates from high school, almost all of them going on to college. The fact that thousands of children, a great majority of whom are African-American, would be forced to remain in their failing schools, thus closing the door on their future, didn’t seem to faze Mr. Van Roekel one bit. 

  • In 2011, AFT’s state affiliate in Connecticut neutered a Parent Trigger law and bragged about how it managed to snooker the mostly-minority parents. The union went so far as to post the step-by-step process on its website. Fortunately, writer RiShawn Biddle managed to save the document before AFT pulled the webpage, having realized that their gloating might not be in sync with its pro-minority persona. Parent leader Gwen Samuel, an African-American mother of two, saw through the union’s malfeasance, however. “When will parents matter?” she asks.
  • In 2011, the ACLU filed a lawsuit that would have exempted 45 of the worst schools in Los Angeles – predominantly black and Hispanic – from teacher union-mandated seniority rules, enabling those schools to keep good teachers instead of being subjected to constant turnover. In an Orwellian statement, United Teachers of Los Angeles elementary vice-president Julie Washington fumed,

This settlement will do nothing to address the inequities suffered by our most at-risk students. It is a travesty that this settlement, by avoiding real solutions and exacerbating the problem, actually undermines the civil and constitutional rights of our students.

The suit was successful, but subsequently the ruling was overturned on a technicality. Having no concern about the rights of the minority children disparately affected by the archaic last-in, first out statute, UTLA was thrilled.

  • If successful, the Students Matter  (Vergara v. California) lawsuit in California will remove the tenure, seniority and arcane dismissal statutes from the state education code, thus making it easier to get rid of incompetent and criminal teachers. While this lawsuit will help all students in the state, inner-city kids would benefit the most.

Collectively, the laws Vergara v. California challenges deprive those students arbitrarily assigned to the classrooms of ineffective teachers of their fundamental and constitutionally guaranteed right to equal opportunity to access quality education.

Though not named in the suit, the teachers unions just couldn’t sit idly by and accept a change in the rules that would benefit kids at their expense.

Two state teachers unions – the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers – released a joint press release … announcing that they had filed a motion “to intervene in litigation.” This means that CTA and CFT would like to be become involved in the case because they feel that the current defendants – the state and the school districts – are not adequately representing the interests of their teachers, whose rights they maintain could be adversely affected by the case.

There are countless other examples which exemplify the fact that the teachers unions’ raison d’être is preserving their influence, and doing so by any means necessary. That minority children are the ones who suffer the most from the unions’ ongoing power-lust is of no concern to them. That these raving hypocrites are now grandstanding and calling for the scalp of George Zimmerman boggles the mind.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that you will be reading about this latest outrage in the mainstream media. Like the teachers unions, these bad actors are doing their best to push their agenda and con the public.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.