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UTLA Presidential Candidates Slam Charter Schools

At a Los Angeles teachers union election forum, presidential contenders portray charter schools as a disease that needs to be eradicated.

As reported by LA School Report’s Vanessa Romo, charter schools were a primary target at the February 20th symposium for presidential candidates of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Actually, it seemed as if each aspirant who spoke on the issue was trying to position himself as Charter School Enemy #1.

Before we get into the debate itself, let me just spill out a few facts about charter schools.

  • Charter schools are public schools of choice.
  • They are tuition-free and open to any student who wishes to attend. They don’t cherry pick their students.  Charter schools allow parents, organizations, or community groups to restore, reinvent, and reenergize our public school system.
  • Charter schools are designed and governed by each local community, rather than by a central bureaucracy.
  • A charter school gets 3 to 5 years to do what it says it is going to do, and if it doesn’t succeed – unlike traditional public schools – it gets shut down.
  • In the U.S., there are 6,500 charter schools (in 42 states and D.C.), serving 2.5 million students; sadly there are 520,000 kids on wait lists.
  • In California, there are 1,130 schools, 500,000 students and 50,000 on wait lists.
  • According to the non-partisan California Legislative Analyst Office, in 2010-11, new charters got $721 less per pupil than traditional public schools. (Typically, the costs of the buildings are not included, although, according to California Charter School Association president Jed Wallace, CA’s new Local Control Funding Formula will equalize things.)

How well do charter schools perform? There have been many studies, the great majority of which claim that they do quite well, especially with some underserved student subgroups: low-income students, English Learners, African-American and Latino students. There’s mounting evidence that charter schools decrease dropout rates, increase college attendance rates and improve the quality of colleges that college-bound students attend.

If these kids go to college, do they actually graduate? And if charter schools really have lasting effects, shouldn’t they have an impact on how much money students earn? A new working paper examines these questions, and the answer is – in a word – yes

Not surprisingly, charter schools are very popular. Using just released data, by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Center for Policy Analysis blog reports that,

When families have public school choice, they increasingly select public charter schools over traditional public schools.

  • Over the past five years, student enrollment in public charter schools has grown by 80 percent.
  • … In seven school districts, more than 30 percent of students attend charter schools.
  • In 135 districts, at least 10 percent of students attend public charter schools.
  • Thirteen school districts saw increases in charter school enrollment ranging from nearly 20 to almost 60 percent in a single year.
  • … A 2013 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll indicates that nearly 70 percent of Americans favor charter schools.

Referring to the same study, former state Senator Gloria Romero wrote in the Orange County Register that

… 600 new public charter schools opened their doors for the 2013-14 school year, serving an estimated 288,000 students. Over the past decade, charter school enrollment rose 225 percent, and the number of new schools rose 118 percent.

Nina Rees, alliance president and CEO, stated, ‘Parents are increasingly voting with their feet. This is the largest increase in the number of students attending charter schools we’ve seen since tracking [began]. … Independent research has shown time and again that charter school students perform better academically than their traditional-school peers. Families are catching on, and these enrollment figures reflect that.

California led the nation in the number of new charters and students served, adding 104 schools and serving an additional 48,000 students (despite the additional space, some 50,000 students remain on charter waiting lists). California was followed by Arizona, with 87 new schools; Florida, with 75; Texas, with 52; and New York, with 26.

As I wrote last year, the teachers unions have a schizoid relationship with charters. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, they want to kill them off; on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays they want to unionize them. To date, only about 12 percent nationwide and 15 percent in CA have been unionized. Seems that many teachers value the freedom that non-unionization offers more than they care about the job protections that the unions provide. And this is just not okeydokey with union bosses, and the candidates for the UTLA presidency were not shy about expressing their opinions.

Three members immediately conceded that charters are too attractive to the public and are here to stay.

Gregg Solkovits, Alex Caputo-Pearl, and Bill Gaffney agreed that there’s no turning back the tide on the charter school movement within LA Unified and therefore UTLA must aggressively pursue efforts to organize charter school teachers.

Gaffney, who is a charter member of UTLA’s charter organizing committee said,

… charter school teachers are easily convinced that joining UTLA is much better deal for them. Although, he conceded, it is ‘a very scary process’ that involves a lot of secrecy for teachers with no legal protections.

Scary? No legal protections? Gee, not exactly great selling points.

Solkovits is currently a UTLA vice-president and longtime unionista. He was refreshingly honest when he said,

When charter schools are organized, they become much less attractive to our enemies.

Please note that he didn’t bother to mention the success of charter schools or long wait lists, which are the result of parents clamoring to get their kids out of lousy traditional public schools. Nah. He went right for the political. At least he didn’t come up with the typical union tripe about his position being “for the children.”

Not to be outdone, Saul Lankster, previously a teacher at two charter schools, has done an about-face and is staunchly anti-charter. As Romo writes, “His plan is to withdraw support from board members who support charter schools in favor of ones who oppose them.”

Leonard Segal wants to block charter expansion by changing California’s education code.

Then there is incumbent Warren Fletcher, who is perceived by many of the candidates to be a wimp. But regarding charters, he proudly pointed to the fact that he opposed Prop. 39, despite the UTLA leadership’s endorsement of the initiative in 2000. This law, among other things, allows for traditional public schools to let charter schools coexist on their campus (colocation) if room is available. This prop turned out embarrassing for traditional public schools and the union because charters frequently outperform their “colocatees” with kids from the same demographic. This phenomenon was spelled out quite clearly by Jason Riley. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he quotes from Steven Brill’s Class Warfare, which compares the teachers’ contracts at Harlem Success Academy, a high-performing charter school in New York City, and a traditional public school that shares the same building and teaches kids from the same socio-economic background.

‘The Harlem Success teachers’ contract drives home the idea that the school is about the children, not the grown-ups. It is one page, allows them to be fired at will, and defines their responsibilities no more specifically than that they must help the school achieve its mission. Harlem Success teachers are paid about 5 to 10 percent more than union teachers on the other side of the building who have their levels of experience.

‘The union contract in place on the public school side of the building is 167 pages. Most of it is about job protection and what teachers can and cannot be asked to do during the 6 hours and 57.5 minutes (8:30 to about 3:25, with 50 minutes off for lunch) of their 179-day work year.’

In … 2010, 29 percent of the students at the traditional public school were reading and writing at grade level, and 34 percent were performing at grade level in math. At the charter school, the corresponding numbers were 86 percent and 94 percent. (Emphasis added.)

Given the embarrassment factor, it’s easy to see why colocation and charters in general are issues for the teachers unions.

UTLA ballots went out yesterday, but it looks as if, no matter who gets elected as new UTLA president, the assault on charters – in spite of their success – will continue. As such, is it surprising that only 22 percent of Americans think that teachers unions have a positive effect on education? This is an all-time low figure and the unions are dealing with the deepening hole they are in by ordering more shovels.

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

School Choice Wars

Though National School Choice Week ended a couple of weeks ago, reactionary rhetoric and political clashes are just heating up.

With National School Choice Week behind us, the battle – and it is a battle – to free our children from a monopoly by zip-code public education system is being fought on fronts all over the country, and in red and blue states alike, more and more Democrats are breaking ranks and joining Republicans in the fight.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz, runs the wildly popular and thriving Success Academy Charter Schools – ten of the 22 schools are in Harlem – which cater to 6,700 students from overwhelmingly poor and minority families. They scored in the top 1 percent in math and top 7 percent in English on the most recent state test. You might think that this would make her a welcome figure in the Big Apple. But turns out that new mayor Bill de Blasio (and fellow Democrat) along with his teacher union friends, have it in for the charter operator.

The Wall Street Journal asks and then answers a question,

How did Ms. Moskowitz, a hero to thousands of New Yorkers of modest means whose children have been able to get a better education than their local public schools offered, end up becoming public enemy No. 1?

She is the city’s most prominent, and vocal, advocate for charter schools, and therefore a threat to the powerful teachers union that had been counting the days until the de Blasio administration took over last month from the charter-friendly Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Assailed by Mayor de Blasio and union leaders, Ms. Moskowitz is fighting back with typically sharp elbows.

“A progressive Democrat should be embracing charters, not rejecting them,” she says. “It’s just wacky.”

Perhaps they “should be embracing charters” and quite a few do. However, many more who claim to be “progressive” are anything but. In fact, the teachers unions and their fellow travelers who slavishly fight against any meaningful education reform are really reactionaries. And it’s no secret that Moskowitz has had a teacher union problem for years now.

in 1999, Ms. Moskowitz won a council seat representing Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Three years later, she took the helm of the council’s education committee. A competitor for that chairmanship was a Democratic councilman from Brooklyn, Bill de Blasio.

Ms. Moskowitz says the union had previously controlled the committee and set its agenda, even providing cue cards to members. At a delicate moment for the UFT’s talks with City Hall on a new contract, Ms. Moskowitz held hearings on the teachers union’s work rules and other restrictions in the contract. That move secured the enmity of Randi Weingarten, who ran the local union then and is now president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“The unions decided to get political retribution and they succeeded,” Ms. Moskowitz says. The UFT led the opposition to her failed 2005 bid for Manhattan borough president. Ms. Moskowitz soon after decided to try to reform in New York another way, starting the inaugural Harlem Success Academy. It was quickly bounced from its shared home at a public school.

“Randi Weingarten came in and said, ‘Over my dead body,’ ” according to Ms. Moskowitz. But a former political sparring partner, then-Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, became an ally. The Bloomberg administration wanted to “flood the zone” in Harlem with alternatives to failing district schools. Half the kids in Harlem today attend charters, among them KIPP, Democracy Prep and Harlem Children’s Zone. Across New York, 70,000 students go to a charter.

The next time a teachers union leader insists that they are really “for the children,” please refer the true believer to Eva Moskowitz.

Then we have President Obama, who favors charter schools but draws the line at privatization. He well knows that if he came out in favor of vouchers, the unions would throw him under the school bus. But as a lame duck, one has to wonder why he is still holding that position. The president was forced recently to address the voucher issue head on when Fox’s Bill O’Reilly confronted him on Super Bowl Sunday.

Mr. Obama said that the means-tested voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C, “didn’t actually make that much of a difference,” and added, “As a general proposition, vouchers have not significantly improved the performance of kids that are in these poorest communities.”

In fact, the president is dead wrong.  Study after study has shown that vouchers  improve student outcomes and have the biggest impact on low-income minorities. Additionally, private schools are taxpayer-friendly – doing a better job for less money. As writer Jason Riley points out,

Mr. Obama’s problem with vouchers is not that they don’t work. Rather, it’s that they work all too well and thus present a threat to the education status quo and the teachers unions who control it. Democrats like Mr. Obama are deeply dependent on union support–so dependent that they will sometimes tell bald-faced lies about school-choice research on national television and hope that no one notices.

On a national level, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Tim Scott (R-SC) have introduced legislation that would help poor and disabled kids as well as military families.

Under Alexander’s legislation, states could opt to allocate the newly-consolidated funds to low-income parents, giving them much more say over how their child’s share of federal education dollars are spent. Parents could use the money to help pay for private school, supplement their public or public charter’s school’s budget, attend a public school outside their home district, or cover the cost of tutoring services or home schooling materials. Each child would get an average of $2,100 in annual federal aid, under the proposal.

Scott released the CHOICE Act, which stands for the Creating Hope and Opportunities for Individuals and Communities Through Education Act. The bill would allow special education dollars to follow children to the school of their choice.

… Scott’s bill would create a five-year, $10 million pilot program to offer military families scholarships of up to $12,000 for use at public or private schools. (The cost of the program would be offset by a decrease in the U.S. Department of Education’s salaries and expenses account.) Scott is also seeking to boost the number of students receiving aid under the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a federally-funded voucher program for low-income students in Washington.

Needless to say, the National Education Association is not in favor of this kind of help to those in need. On the union’s legislative page, it gives a “jeer” to both Alexander and Scott for introducing the voucher proposals.

On the state level, there is more bad news for the unions. They will need to extinguish fires in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alaska, Indiana, Wisconsin and elsewhere, as school choice and other education reforms have been embraced by many on both sides of the political aisle.

Of course there are still plenty of legislators who, having thrown in their lot with the union crowd, are vehemently anti-choice. On the NEA website, California Rep. George Miller (D-CA) gets a “thumbs-up” for demonizing National School Choice Week.

Many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and their strategists, have embraced so-called ‘school choice’ as part of their rebranding efforts, to appear more caring … This new effort even has a warm and fuzzy name: the Growth and Opportunity Project. This is political posturing at its worst … If you ask most parents in America, they will tell you that their first ‘choice’ is for their neighborhood school to be a great school.

Yes, Mr. Miller, that would be nice, if all neighborhood schools were “great.”  But they’re not. And if your local school was not up to par, you wouldn’t want to send your kids there, now would you?

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also gets a shout-out from NEA for her “reaction to so-called school choice.”

I have always had great anxiety with the thought that we’d take public money, state money, and send it to private schools.

Think Pell Grants, Ms. Murkowski. Think G.I. Bill. Just think.

The reactionaries among us – certain educrats and legislators and of course the teachers unions – won’t go away easily. But “Choice Spring” has arrived, and the pro-choice movement has taken root. As parents, children and taxpayers get a taste of freedom, there will be no turning back.

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.