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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.

UTLA, LAUSD and ACLU Fiddle While Children Don’t Learn

“Landmark settlement” song has hackneyed words but still makes Top 10 in the “Hubris” category.

In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit which claimed that seniority-based layoffs take a disproportionate toll on poor and minority schools. The ACLU won the case and the settlement protected students in up to 45 schools from the pernicious effects of the last in/first out (LIFO) regimen.

But shortly thereafter, the United Teachers of Los Angeles successfully appealed the decision, and the case was remanded back to state court. And after 20 months of dithering and dickering, we now have a new settlement. As reported by EdSource’s John Fensterwald,

The deal in the Reed v. the State of California lawsuit will provide about $25 million annually for three years for additional administrators, mentor teachers and teacher training in 37 middle and high schools where there had been low student performance and high turnover of inexperienced teachers.

There are a few other minor considerations like a special education coordinator being placed at each school and principals will be offered a “retention package” to stay on the job longer. But the problem at hand? Ignore it, throw some money around it and hope the victims will be appeased. There is no mention at all about better ways to choose which teachers stay and which teachers go should layoffs become necessary. It ignores the reality that the union-enforced LIFO system regularly cheats thousands of children out of a decent education. And the self-congratulatory palavering over the decision strikes a dissonant chord.

The usually sensible Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent John Deasy crooned,

The youth in greatest peril at these schools will benefit tremendously. These are invaluable investments, aligned with the goals of the Local Control Funding Formula, which will make a difference in transforming these schools and bring justice to our youth.

Huh? What Dr. Deasy is saying here is that we can right things by simply throwing more money at the problem. Gee, maybe we can become like Washington, D.C.! It spends $30,000 yearly per student yet has one of the most dysfunctional school systems in the country.

Joan Sullivan, CEO of the Partnership schools rhapsodized,

Our mission is about equity. Today, thanks to ongoing collaboration, we have all parties coming together around a landmark settlement that promises to bring students across Los Angeles closer to the educational opportunity they deserve.

Landmark? The only landmark that this case conjures up is the Alamo. But while the Alamo massacre is a distant memory, inner city school carnage is still with us.

Jesus E. Quinonez, an attorney for UTLA, claimed victory, warbling,

… any attempts to extinguish the rights of teachers—here, the right to a neutral and fair hearing process—will not serve the needs of kids or lead to justice in our schools.

Fair hearing process? Is he kidding?! With LIFO in place, no one gets any kind of hearing. Decisions are made according to a brain-dead set-up that doesn’t recognize the importance of teacher quality. In fact, LIFO discriminates not only against children, but also against good and great teachers.

Dale Larson, attorney with Morrison & Foerster, which partnered with the ACLU in the lawsuit, intoned:

By providing resources to attract and retain teachers in the 37 low-performing, high-turnover middle and high schools, the settlement renders the legal question raised in Reed “academic.”

Actually, it’s not “academic” at all as the 17 page decision never even mentions the words “seniority” or “last in/first out.”

What the Kumbaya chorus is omitting – other than the fact that the issues in the original suit have gone completely unaddressed – is that adding administrators to a bad situation is often worse than meaningless. You see, in Los Angeles, though administrators are “at will” employees, they are treated like unionized teachers and are almost never fired for incompetence. (I know this from first-hand experience. We had a revolving door of assistant principals at the middle school where I toiled for 15 years. A few were great, some good and some were so bad they went from school to school – all too frequently mine – as “must place” employees. Also, I never met a teacher who was drawn to a school because it had a lot of administrators.)

Additional mentor teachers and teacher training are good things – assuming the mentors and the training are of value. But what happens if a teacher still isn’t doing the job after working with a mentor and getting further training? Nothing. Due to seniority (and equally noxious tenure laws), he will still be in the classroom, his students will still be failing, and a better teacher will be collecting an unemployment check.

Officially, the agreement is not a done deal. The LAUSD board needs to vote on it and it’s on the agenda for its April 22nd meeting. If it passes there, the settlement then must be approved by the court. But given the self-congratulatory outpouring by virtually all of the involved players, it’s hard to believe that there will be dissent from either entity. (Too bad the parents and kids at the involved schools don’t have a vote.)

Hence, it would appear that the only hope for burying seniority – and the foul tenure and dismissal statutes – lies with the Vergara v. California (Students Matter) case, which is set for a ruling by early July. Referring to Vergara, UTLA attorney Quinonez said the settlement in the ACLU case acknowledges that “the solution to high turnover in schools is not to take away teachers’ rights.”

What the union lawyer really meant was that the agreement doesn’t take away the more senior teachers’ perks. And more importantly, his statement makes no mention of “children’s rights.” But then again, union songs are invariably about union solidarity. And the voices of the children and their parents who continue to be penalized are never included in the mix.

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.