Why charter schools are the flashpoint for the LA teachers' strike

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/01/18/stealth-privatization.html


In every post of yours I’ve seen about charter schools, you paint a one-dimensional picture of them existing only as for-profit abusive tools of those intent on destroying public education. I don’t doubt there are those elements, but there are also cases where it’s the only way of exerting pressure on a intransigent school district.

Where we live, all dozen or so schools in the district are “below average” by California standards (and CA is already a low bar), and the ones we’re zoned for are designated “failing schools”. They repeatedly have security issues, bullying is rampant, and parents we know whose kids went there said their attempts to help effect change were constantly rebuffed by the administration - putting the lie to the “if only concerned parents would stay at their local school it would get better” The elected district officials have had literally decades to turn things around, and never do.

We got lucky and our child got into a local non-profit Montessori charter school, where I believe more than half of the families qualify for subsidized lunches, which is a proxy measure for low-income.

The only other option in the area (for those who can afford it) are private religious schools.

In the school district board meetings, I hear them grumble about charters, but some of them also say “we need to work harder to provide a compelling alternative” HOORAY. That’s the point!

Killing charters won’t magically fix our schools. It will make those lucky enough to win the lottery worse off, reduce any sense of urgency to the neighborhood schools to compete, and kill the “laboratory for ideas” that is the ideal of the charter school program. (That, and giving parents zoned to failing schools an actual choice)

My counter-offer:

  • Do something about CA Prop 13, which underfunds all the schools
  • Hold charters to the same curriculum standards to avoid religious schools having poor educational standards
  • If for-profit charters appear to be unfairly extracting money from the system without producing comparable results, figure out how and fix it!

Long story short: there’s more than one dimension to charter schools.


UTLA’s strike cannot “stop the stealth privatization of our public schools.” There’s an entire body of California statewide laws and regulations that apply to the approval, oversight, and management of charter schools. LAUSD simply up and refusing to approve any more charters would be laughed out of court. And the union’s biggest complaint–co-location of charter schools at traditional schools–is expressly authorized by Proposition 39, which was approved by voters statewide in 2000.

To be sure, there are things that UTLA can accomplish through the collective bargaining process that might affect the proliferation of charters at the margins, but only at the margins, and even then not too much.

The victory UTLA wants can’t be achieved at the bargaining table. LAUSD can’t change state law. The union can secure better wages, benefits, and work rules for its members. But rolling back charter schools has to happen at the ballot box, and it has to happen statewide. One collective bargaining agreement in one school district can’t “stop the stealth privatization of our public schools.” If UTLA is telling its members that a strike can achieve that goal, it’s doing them a disservice.


Charter schools can cream off the kids with wealthy parents, high test scores and no special needs, sucking money out of the public system, which still has the same per-pupil funding that has to stretch farther to cover fixed costs

Another reason for charter schools’ success in comparison to public schools with the same level of state funding is that, in addition to self-selecting for the kids, they also self-select on parents, and not only in terms of their wealth.

Parents motivated and involved enough to jump through the hoops to get their kids into a charter school in the first place are parents who are expected by the charter to put as much time as they can into providing volunteer labour to supplement the budget shortfalls that affect all public schools (esp. in CA) and provide oversight over their own child. The more affluent that parent, the more time he or she can put into their child’s education.

In the wealthiest districts (traditionals or charters, but more with charters), areas where a middle-class lifestyle can still be maintained on a single income, the stay-at-home parent is pressured into doing “voluntary” service time and the household is expected to contribute money to “voluntary” fundraisers. This frees up funds that other districts have to apply to bare minimum basics.


Strikes, especially big-ass strikes like this can and most certainly do give birth to movements which can change law at all levels.


If this is something that leads to a movement, that’s good. But if the union is selling “rolling back charters” as an achievable goal from this specific labor action, that’s just not true.


In a couple of years I’m going to find out just how bad things are in Arizona. California certainly has a more disastrous funding issue, but killing public education altogether is wildly popular here.

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The otherwise usually good NYMag write Jon Chait is pretty bad when it comes to Massachusetts charter schools, on account of his wife’s job. This prompted an informative Slate article about them, whose comments (click “Order by: Top Comments”) are also quite informative. (Elizabeth Warren for President in 2019!!)

This strike is already part of a larger movement, of which charter schools/privatization have been a major issue.

Even looking past the broader movement in progress, I still tend to think that’s a limited view of the goals of this action. Strikes generally have multi-tiered goals, ranging from localized specifics to longer term strategic initiatives, like setting the battleground for state-level initiatives. Particularly, if this strike kicks off a wave of strikes statewide you can bet there will be rollback initiatives next election.

So yeah, I totally see how this can be sold as an achievable goal.


Why is the district operating charter schools?

I was living in Pennsylvania when they passed a law allowing taxpayers to designate up to 100% of their state taxes to charter schools, and take a 100% tax credit. It was very obviously designed to starve public schools, especially those in (ahem) low-income areas.


This is sort of circular reasoning though, right? The designation of ‘failing schools’ comes from legislation designed to make it easier to shutter schools instead of fixing them.

Further, the whole practice of rating schools solely according to academic performance seems like fertile ground for vicious downward cycles–part of making those schools better is by sending kids with ample support systems to them rather than leaning almost entirely on teacher micromanagement to bring up test scores before anyone takes the risk.


I certainly don’t disagree. Figuring out good (and fair!) ways to evaluate school (and teacher) performance is a super important – and I have yet to hear a practical way to go about it. And obviously punishing under-resourced schools dealing with very-high-maintenance students for “low performance” is criminally idiotic.

Everything I’ve seen tried re: teacher & school evaluations are proxy measures at best which end up getting gamed :frowning:


We basically have that in AZ.

It’s a little weird: the money can only go to extracurricular activities, but you can designate a specific student to be the recipient. You can also designate the money for a public school, but then the amount allowed is halved.

There’s a “Jesus Loves Capitalism and Hates Dinosaurs” madrassa here every three goddamn blocks, and this is “liberal” Arizona.


Re-distributing public education funding as profit and sending it up to CEOs and shareholders, not having to follow regulations and laws that public schools do and having teachers work longer for the minimum that the CEOs want to give them – sounds like a neoliberal fascist’s wet dream!

That is not how charter schools are funded in PA. Charter schools get per pupil funding as a percentage of what the sending district would spend. They are also public schools and cannot pick and choose who they admit.

Businesses can donate to a private school or educational nonprofit and get a 90% tax credit. Perhaps this is what you are thinking of?

And the law may have changed. It’s been a few years.

I don’t why Cory’s got a bug up his butt about Charter Schools, but, as a Californian, he’s wrong on so many different points in his diatribe, it’s hard to know where to begin,

Maybe here: California Charter Schools Association: Understanding Charters:
Frequently Asked Questions

Among other things, no, Charters can’t “cream off the top students.” They are legally required to accept any student who applies. If applications exceed available seats, a random lottery process must be used. No “cherry-picking.”

An LA public elementary school near me recently became a Charter School. It was the sort of elementary that parents paid premium prices for housing in the schools’ territory – which was, of course, predominantly white and wealthy.

Now that they’re a Charter, ANY student from ANY neighorhood can attend, and their demographics, both racial and economic, have greatly diversified.

They’re not “sucking money out of the public schools” – they ARE a public school. (Though they only get the same per-pupil funding as any other public school – Charters do NOT have access to the capital funds and facilities funds that regular public schools get, and, in addition they must pay oversight and administrative fees to their local school districts.)

Other states may have the sort of badly-run horrorshow Charters described here, but this is not even remotely an accurate depiction of how Charter Schools work in California.

(And, no, it has almost nothing to do with why LAUSD teachers are striking. Cory’s just trying to hijack teachers’ justifiable outrage against their dysfunctional district for his own pet cause.)

Okay, so how those students get to that school? People who work multiple jobs and don’t have cars don’t have the luxury of sending their kids go to a school far from their home.

Additionally, charter schools tend to employ less experienced teachers and administrators. While enthusiasm and recent knowledge are very important, so is institutional knowledge and experience. All of the charter schools I’ve worked with spent so much time reinventing the wheel. (I worked as an assessment coordinator for a educational software company.) in larger school districts, they might have one person who worked with me to coordinate all of the assessment data, and we came up with a unified, multi year plan for all of the schools. In charter schools, I usually had a different point of contact each year (sometimes each semester!), and their goals and plans changed constantly.

One might call that being flexible, but changes in education are necessarily slow due to education—especially primary education—being extremely cumulative. So even if you just pull your kid out of a bad school, they still have all the baggage associated with that bad educational experience. I do empathize with parents who only care that their children get a good education, but public education (like vaccination!) is something that we all have to do together or it doesn’t work.

I don’t know how to fix it. I’ve worked for LAUSD, and I think people don’t understand how big it is. It’s currently unmanageable (look at how many superintendents we’ve had in recent years), but I don’t think it’s unsavable. I am a huge believer in public education (and full disclosure: I teach at a public college), and I don’t think the current system is serving all of our students equally. But I don’t think charters are the answer either.


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