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Anti-Charter-School Rhetoric Isn’t Helping L.A.’s Kids

As the son of poor sharecroppers from East Texas who came to California to work as migrant farm workers, I greet the new school year as a time of hope and possibility for my family.

Neither of my parents was able to complete elementary school in the segregated South, but they knew education was the ticket to a brighter future for my brothers and me. With their encouragement, I went on to graduate from UCLA and Harvard law school. I was lucky to have been raised in a small town with few minority students and an excellent Public School system. Many of my relatives and friends who lived in Los Angeles did not receive the same education opportunity I was afforded.

As a result, I have spent the greater part of my adult life committed to expanding educational opportunity, especially for poor black and brown kids who are just like me. I am increasingly dismayed at the nasty polarization in education politics. For those of us who say we are concerned about public education, we urgently need to change the tenor and discourse about how to improve all of our schools.

20160907-CPC-Alliance
Alliance charter high schools have a 95% graduation rate

Regrettably, this new school year has begun amid ill-informed denunciations of charter schools by the NAACP and Black Lives Matter; a skewed and misleading piece by TV comedian John Oliver; and closer to home, a hyperbolic call to arms by the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union for Los Angeles Unified schools, against charter schools more broadly and specifically against Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, of which I am a founder and on whose board I still sit.

Missing in all the critiques of charter schools is any mention of student needs and achievement. Instead we are fed abstract arguments about the need to protect bureaucratic government systems that have shortchanged minority families for decades. Missing has been the voices of hundreds of thousands of parents who have found a better opportunity for their children in innovative, autonomous public charter schools.

At Alliance schools, neither our students nor their parents care about the governance structure of their school. Like my parents, what they care about is if their school is safe and welcoming and whether it lives up to the promise to educate all students regardless of how they walk in the door. At Alliance, we have lived up to that promise.

The average Alliance student enters our middle and high schools four to five grade levels behind in reading. Yet, 95 percent of Alliance students graduate in four years and 95 percent of those graduates are accepted to college.

It is highly insulting to the 12,500 families and 1,200 teachers, school leaders and staff — who have worked tirelessly to build Alliance into one of the largest and most successful public school networks in the nation — to dismiss their hard work and dedication to student success as a nefarious conspiracy led by a secret cabal of “billionaires” determined to destroy public schools. It’s also an offensive distortion of reality.

When I hear the president of UTLA regularly condemn Alliance specifically and charter schools more broadly, I feel that I am living in an alternate reality. In any rational universe, Alliance schools would be celebrated, studied and asked to share what we have learned.

There is a strong case to be made for the positive impact charter schools like Alliance have had on traditional public schools. In Los Angeles, we have helped to change the debate and expectations about what is possible, especially for black and brown students in our city’s lowest-income communities.

More important, we’ve made a difference in the lives of our students and their families. Beyond the exceptional results of Alliance schools, the 2015 research study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that the academic gains in math and reading for African American, Latino, low-income and special education students in urban charter schools are significantly higher than traditional urban public schools. The example of what is possible at high-performing charter schools has helped spur the LAUSD to increase graduation rates as well as strengthen its commitment to college-ready education for all students.

I applaud LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King’s effort to cool the heated us-vs.-them rhetoric fueled by the teachers union, and instead turn her focus on charters and traditional schools learning from each other, increasing high-performing schools of all kinds and offering low-income families the school choice that more affluent families have.

As we begin the new school year, let’s focus on the wonder and promise that can be seen in eyes of every child who walks into a school — any type of school. It is long past time to turn down the bombastic rhetoric and divisions driven by adult politics and focus instead on what works to provide all of our children a high-quality education.

Virgil Roberts is an attorney at the law firm of Bobbitt and Roberts, and a member of the board of directors of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools. This commentary originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News and appears here with permission from the author.

Unionization Push Threatens Alliance College-Ready Public Schools

“Join the movement for schools L.A. students deserve.” You’d be forgiven for thinking that meant schools that offered the best outcomes for their students. Instead, it’s the banner the United Teachers of Los Angeles is marching under in its “struggle” with the Los Angeles Unified School District and the “fight against the corporate parasites lined up against us.”

Ground zero for that fight appears to be the successful Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, which is in the midst of a yearlong and increasingly aggressive unionization push. Much of the money set aside by UTLA, which has a line item in its budget for anti-charter organizing, will likely go toward this effort.

Newly elected President & CEO, Dan Katzir, of Alliance-College Ready Public Schools. Alliance has grown to serve more than 11,000 students across 26 high schools and middle schools, making it the largest public school charter network in Los Angeles

Dan Katzir, CEO of Alliance-College Ready Public Schools. Alliance has grown to serve more than 11,000 students across 26 high schools and middle schools, making it the largest public school charter network in Los Angeles

UTLA’s talk of “corporate parasites” is puzzling, considering that less than one percent of charter schools in California – just six schools out of almost 1,200 – are organized as for-profit entities and the rest, Alliance included, are non-profits. Its tough rhetoric notwithstanding, it is a mystery why the union would have such an interest in unionizing the network of 27 free, public charter high schools and middle schools mostly in South and East Los Angeles.

“We’re a little suspect to their motives since they wish to abolish us,” Catherine Suitor, Chief Development and Communications Officer at the charter network, told us.

The unionization push is certainly a change of pace for an organization that has been calling for the end of public charter schools since they began , but the union seems to be operating under the old adage that if you can’t beat them, join them, and is organizing pro-union Alliance teachers under the umbrella of Alliance Educators United.

“Our teachers have a right to decide if they want to unionize,” Suitor added. “But a year into it they haven’t gotten the numbers. We are not for or against unionization. But UTLA has been unabashedly anti-charter.”

The union says it is simply about giving teachers a voice. But the May edition of the union’s newspaper may provide a more realistic insight into the union’s change of heart. In it, UTLA Treasurer Arlene Inouye noted that “with dropping membership levels and rising costs, we have had an operating deficit for seven budget cycles, due primarily to a dues structure that does not provide enough revenue to cover our annual general operating costs.”

UTLA President, Alex Caputo-Pearl, of the 35,000 member teachers union

Alex Caputo-Pearl, President of the 35,000 member United Teachers of Los Angeles.

So, while adding dues-paying members to the union rolls probably doesn’t hurt either, if the goal was really for schools L.A. students deserve, then the UTLA has come to the right place – not to unionize, but rather to learn from, as Alliance offers a successful track record that balances cost with results.

“They should be trying to learn from us rather then try to kill us,” Dale Okuno, a member of the Alliance board of directors told me. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating and we have great results.”

Earlier this year, the California Policy Center, this blog’s parent organization, authored a report comparing nine LAUSD traditional schools and nine LAUSD Alliance public charter schools based on the cost per pupil and educational achievement.

“The data shows the per-pupil costs for Alliance charter high school students to be $10,649 per year, compared to $15,372 per year for students at traditional public high schools within LAUSD; that is, we find a per-pupil cost differential of 44 percent in favor of Alliance charter schools,” the report found.

It also noted that on testing, “Alliance schools have decisively higher Academic Performance Index (API) scores, 762 vs. 701, and higher graduation rates, 91.5 percent vs. 84.1 percent,” and that “the Alliance charter students outperformed the LAUSD traditional students with average [SAT] scores of 1417 vs. 1299 – a significant difference.” The report continued, “Among college bound students, an SAT score of 1299 puts the student in the bottom 27 percent nationally. A score of 1417, by contrast, places the student at 41 percent nationally.”

The authors concluded, “LAUSD Alliance charter high schools provide better outcomes at lower costs than comparable LAUSD traditional operated public schools in the same area.”

That comes despite the fact that 94 percent of Alliance students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and that, on average, middle school students arrive with a reading level at first and second grade levels – and a fourth grade reading level for incoming high school students.

Alliance attributes that success to the flexibility to be different that being a charter network provides, flexibility that unionization could potentially eliminate, as the union remodels the network into a more traditional model.

“We wouldn’t negotiate away our future,” Suitor said. “We worry the union would ask for things we couldn’t afford. Our goal is not to be exactly like the traditional schools, but to be different.”

Among those points that could prove a deal-breaker at the bargaining table is merit-based teacher incentives, which the union has made clear in a number of postings on its website they see as the antithesis to public education.

But performance-based compensation is at the heart of how Alliance operates, even though teachers, on average, make more than their traditional counterparts and, as previously noted, still spend nearly $5,000 less per pupil and achieve better outcomes.

Alliance’s presence seems to be having a ripple effect across the district. As Ms. Suitor noted, when Alliance opened its first school, graduation rates were around 50 percent in the district. Now they are up to 70 percent, although Alliance remains a leader with a 91 percent four-year graduation rate and a 99 percent college acceptance rate.

Rising tides appear to be lifting all boats in the LAUSD. As over 158,000 students sit on waitlists to attend charter schools in California, now is not the time to upend one of the more successful education models and instead transform Alliance or other charter schools into just another cog in the traditional system they were designed to escape, taking choices away from parents and students in the process.

About the Author: Scott Kaufman brings his journalistic experience to the California Policy Center to write investigative reports and editorials for UnionWatch and the Prosperity Digest. Kaufman also works for the Orange County Register as an editorial writer. He graduated from the University of California, San Diego and got his start in journalism with the Washington D.C. based weekly Human Events. He transitioned to local government reporting at the Santa Barbara News-Press.

California's Official Antipathy to Educational Innovation and Accountability

“With a hearing now scheduled for Aug. 21, LA Unified’s teachers union, UTLA, will have the chance to argue before a neutral party that Alliance College-Ready Public Charter Schools, violated state education law by blocking the union’s efforts to bring Alliance teachers into its membership.”
– Mike Szymanski, “UTLA outlines accusations against Alliance for anti-union efforts,” LA School Report, August 6, 2015

The “neutral party” to which Szymanski refers is California’s Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), “a quasi-judicial administrative agency charged with administering the eight collective bargaining statutes covering employees of California’s public schools, colleges, and universities, employees of the State of California, employees of California local public agencies,” etc.

“Neutral.” Really?

A quick look at the directors of PERB provides yet another example of just how stacked the deck has gotten in favor of public employee unions. Following their names are excerpts from their official biographies:

  • Anita I. Martinez, Chair, “has been employed with PERB since 1976 and was recently appointed Member and Chair. Prior to that she has served as the PERB San Francisco Regional Director since 1982.”
  • A. Eugene Huguenin, “Before relocating to Sacramento in 2000, Huguenin practiced labor and education law in Los Angeles and Burlingame for more than 20 years, advising and representing the California Teachers Association and it’s locals throughout the state.”
  • Priscilla Winslow‘s “career in public sector labor law spans over 30 years, during which time she served for 15 years as Assistant Chief Counsel for the California Teachers Association where she litigated and advised on a variety of labor, education, and constitutional law issues.”
  • Eric Banks, “served in multiple positions at the Service Employees International Union, Local 221 from 2001 to 2013, including Advisor to the President, President, and Director of Government and Community Relations.”
  • Mark C. Gregersen‘s. career in public sector labor relations spans over 35 years. Prior to his appointment to the California Public Employment Relations Board, he has served as director of labor and work force strategy for the City of Sacramento and director of human resources for a number of California cities and counties.

Just a quick scan of these biographical excerpts suggests that government unions have at least three advocates – Huguenin and Winslow, who were long-time CTA professionals, and Banks, who worked for over a decade for the SEIU. What about the chairperson, Martinez? Here’s an excerpt from Gov. Brown’s announcement of her appointment – Martinez is a long-time Democrat public employee who has spent her entire career in labor bureaucracies:

“She has worked for the Board since 1976, where she currently serves as a regional director. Previously, Martinez was a board agent for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board from 1975 to 1976. She was an intern at the National Labor Relations Board from 1973 to 1976. Martinez is a Democrat.”

What about Gregersen? Do reformers have one voice out of five on PERB? Maybe, maybe not. Here’s are excerpts from Gov. Brown’s 2015 announcement of Gregerson’s appointment to PERB – Gregersen is a long-time Democrat public employee who, among other things, presided as city manager for Vallejo throughout the 1990’s:

“He served as director of labor and workforce strategy for the City of Sacramento from 2011 to 2012 and was director of human resources for Napa County from 2005 to 2009, for El Dorado County from 2004 to 2005 and for the City of Sunnyvale from 2001 to 2004. Gregersen was  director of human resources for the City of Vallejo from 1990 to 1999. Gregersen is a Democrat.”

Not convinced yet? On another hot-button topic for government unions, pension reform, read the ultra-liberal San Jose Mercury’s take on PERB, in an article entitled “State employee panel seems stacked against San Jose pension reformers.” The title says it all.

“Neutral.” Really?

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

The fight to unionize the Alliance charter school network, the largest charter school operator within Los Angeles Unified School District and one of the largest in California, comes at a time when the growth of charter schools is reaching critical mass and constitutes a material threat to union power. As reported today in the Los Angeles Times “Major charter school expansion in the works for L.A. Unified students,” billionaire Democrat and education reformer Eli Broad is behind an effort to greatly increase the charter school enrollment in LAUSD, currently at 16% of all students.” As reported in the Times, “there was discussion of an option that involved enrolling 50% of students currently at schools with low test scores. A source said the cost was estimated to be $450 million; another said hundreds of millions of dollars are needed.”

Most charter schools are not unionized. In non union schools, the process of innovation is unhindered by union work rules, and principals and teachers alike are held accountable for the academic performance of their students. A recent “Urban Charter School Study” published by Stanford University’s nonpartisan Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) “shows that many urban charter schools are providing superior academic learning for their students, in many cases quite dramatically better.”

These findings are corroborated by a recent California Policy Center study on charter school performance, far more limited in scope, that focused on the non-union Alliance charter schools within LAUSD, comparing the performance of their students to those in traditional LAUSD high-schools in the same neighborhoods. Here is a summary of the findings:

“Comparing LAUSD Alliance charter high schools to LAUSD traditional high schools located in the same communities, we found the Alliance schools to have decisively higher API scores, 762 vs. 701, and measurably higher graduation rates, 91.5% vs. 84.1%. With respect to SAT scores, when we normalized the comparison between the LAUSD Alliance and LAUSD traditional schools under consideration to equalize the rate of participation, we found that the LAUSD Alliance students outperformed the LAUSD traditional students with average scores of 1417 vs. 1299.”

Both CREDO and the CPC found unambiguous evidence that urban charter schools academically outperform traditional public schools. The CPC study also estimated per pupil costs for Alliance charter high school students to be $10,649 per year, compared to $15,372 per year for students at traditional public high schools within LAUSD.

Facing a growing bipartisan consensus that charter schools are working and should be expanded, California’s teachers unions are fighting to unionize them. Alliance management is in for a hard fight. They face not only the might of California’s teachers unions, who collect and spend dues totaling well over $300 million every year, but the power of the state itself, in the form of a Public Employee Relations Board whose management is “stacked” overwhelmingly with pro-union directors.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

California's New, Big, Nonpartisan Political Tent

“In politics, a big tent or catch-all party is a political party seeking to attract people with diverse viewpoints and thus appeal to more of the electorate. The big tent approach is opposed to single-issue litmus tests and ideological rigidity, conversely advocating multiple ideologies and views within a party.”
–  Wikipedia, “Big Tent

Something is happening in California. An unstoppable movement for reform is building, attracting support from conscientious Californians regardless of their age, income, race, gender or political ideology. The metaphor of a “big tent” aptly describes the approach that reform leaders are finally embracing.

The fabric of this big tent is supported by two poles, one representing restoring quality education, the other representing restoring financial health to California’s public institutions. But the big tent metaphor breaks down somewhat if it describes a political party. Because most of California’s reform leaders no longer care who gets it done, or what political party takes credit. They just want to Californian children to get quality educations, and they just want to restore economic opportunity to ordinary citizens.

For years, the powers that oppose education reform and fiscal reform have painted reformers as either Republican fanatics, bent on dismantling government, or Democratic traitors, beholden to “Wall Street Hedge Funds.” But this argument is wearing thin. On the topic of education reform, here are three reasons why Californians, all of them, are waking up:

(1) The Vergara Decision:  This case pits nine Oakland public school students against the State of California, arguing that (a) granting tenure after less than two years, (b) retaining teachers during layoffs based on seniority instead of merit, and (c) the near impossibility of dismissing incompetent teachers, is harming California’s overall system of public education, and is disproportionately harming public education in low income communities. Earlier this year, in a Los Angeles Superior court decision, the judge wrote: “The evidence of the effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” In return, the California Teacher’s association had this to say in an official press release:

“All along it’s been clear to us that this lawsuit is baseless, meritless, and masterminded by self-interested individuals with corporate education reform agendas that are veiled by a proclamation of student interest” (ref. CTA press release).

Watch the plaintiff’s closing arguments in the Vergara case. Note how the plaintiff’s legal team was actually able to use the testimony of the defendant’s expert witnesses to support their own case.

(2) Parent Trigger Laws:  In 2010, the California State Legislature signed into law the “Parent Empowerment Act.” This law enables parents in failing schools to (a) transfer their child to a higher performing school, (b) permits parents to change policies at an underperforming school if 50% of parents sign a petition, and (c) requires the California Dept. of Education to regularly publish a list of the 1,000 worst performing schools in the state. Former State Senator Gloria Romero, the liberal Democrat who is largely responsible for getting passage of the Parent Empowerment Act, writes this week in UnionWatch about how the Los Angeles Unified School District tried and failed to exempt themselves from the law. But government employee unions in California are incredibly powerful, collecting and spending over two billion dollars in taxpayer funded dues per two-year election cycle. They literally can be in all places at all times. Read the slime job someone sympathetic to the union machine entered on Romero’s Wikipedia profile:

“Romero leads the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, an interest group funded by Wall Street hedge fund managers who support charter schools.”

(3) Charter Schools:  Here is an example of why claims that “Wall Street hedge fund managers” are somehow hoping to profit from private schools or charter schools (which are not private) are absurdly unfounded. The Alliance College-Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles is a network of 26 high schools, located throughout Los Angeles, which, like nearly all charter schools, consistently delivers superior educational outcomes at a fraction of the cost of union controlled public schools. But the Alliance network is a nonprofit. The capital investments necessary to launch these schools are funded by donations. There is no return on investment. And the benefactors of these schools have no political agenda – they are Democrats, Republicans, and independents. They are a perfect example of California’s new, powerful, big tent.

Financial reform issues are the other pole that supports the big tent. Despite accusations of “hedge fund managers” and “Wall Street” getting behind allegedly phony reform proposals for public education along with fiscal issues such as runaway pension costs, it is actually corrupt financial interests that join with government bureaucrats to perpetuate the abuse and prevent reform. The reason government services are being cut and infrastructure spending is neglected is because unionized government workers receive excessive pay and benefits, crowding out funding for everything else. Wall Street firms underwrite the bonds to cover the deficits and finance deferred maintenance. Wall Street firms (including hedge funds) invest the pension fund assets. People are connecting the dots.

The behavior of powerful government unions, opposing education and fiscal reforms that virtually everyone else supports, is finally exposing them – along with their partners, corrupt financial interests and crony corporations – as the root cause of the most severe challenges facing Californians. This issue is nonpartisan and transcends ideology. The big tent is filling up.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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