What It Takes
The Debate Over LA’s Charter Expansion Plan
Is An Opportunity To Devise Ways
To Ensure All Schools Succeed
by Pedro Noguera, PhD
Los Angeles, California
The proposal by the Broad Foundation to significantly increase the number of charter schools in Los Angeles over the next ten years is being discussed and scrutinized by policy makers and the general public. It should be. If approved by the School Board the proposal could radically alter the face of public education in LA. That is perhaps the only issue that both opponents and supporters agree upon.
While LA is currently the epicenter of the fight over charters, similar battles are being waged in cities throughout California and the country.
Charter school operators, their advocates and funders, should not be expected or allowed to set admissions policies, nor should they determine where a charter school is located. However, because the controls on charter schools are weak there are numerous cases where students perceived as hard to serve have been pushed out or excluded, where parents have been denied due process when grievances have been filed, and the rights of teachers have been violated. There have also been several incidents of fraud and financial misconduct involving charter operators, particularly online and for-profit charters.
Furthermore, as those who have read The Prize by Dale Russakoff know, a great deal was promised when another wealthy philanthropist, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, donated lots of money (100 million to schools in Newark - much of which went to consultants and charter schools) but not much was gained for the poorest children in the city. Transparency and accountability in the use of public and private funds are essential to avoid similar mistakes.
As LA citizens consider the merits and implications of the Broad proposal and the broader public weighs the prospect of allowing charter schools to expand, it would be helpful to reflect on what is presently working in public education and what role charter schools are playing on the educational landscape now. LA actually has a greater number of charter schools than any other US city already. How have these schools affected the quality of public education in the city? Moreover, California has undertaken various versions of reform for several decades, what lessons should we extract from these costly endeavors that might help us in guiding future efforts to improve schools?
During the 1980s George Washington High School in Los Angeles Unified was regarded as an unsafe, dysfunctional school. Under the leadership of former principal (and current Board Member George McKenna), the school was renamed to George Washington Prep, the community was engaged so that gangs no longer posed a threat to students and the school, high quality academic programs were added, and academic achievement increased so significantly that the school became one of the most consistent producers of African American students who were eligible for admission to the University of California.
While many charter schools find ways to avoid serving the most disadvantaged children, signs of progress can be found at some that do. For example, Camino Nuevo, a chain of charter schools dedicated to serving recent immigrants and English language learners, is showing that the predictable patterns of failure that are common for such students in traditional public schools, can be disrupted when teachers are well trained and parents and community are engaged as partners.
Yet, the relative success of Camino Nuevo does not mean that all charter schools are producing impressive results. In a conversation I had with a teacher who recently resigned from a KIPP school in South LA, he affirmed what the data shows: though the school where he taught was generally safer and more orderly, its academic outcomes were not much better than the traditional public schools in the neighborhood.
This is not an attack on KIPP. Several KIPP schools in other parts of the city and the state perform quite well. However, variability in the performance of KIPP schools, and the struggles they have had in serving African American males in particular, should remind us that there are no quick fixes or bullet-proof remedies for fixing public schools. Expanding access to technology (e.g. iPads), restructuring grade configuration (smaller schools), expanding access to social services (community schools), or the latest, increasing the number of charter schools, will not guarantee improvement on a broad scale. In fact, unless reforms are carried out in a thoughtful manner and guided by research to evaluate what works and what doesn’t, we will continue to see a cycle of raised expectations, wasted resources and unfulfilled promises.
What the small number of successful charter and traditional public schools serving poor communities has in common is the careful attention they pay to meeting student needs. That is what we are seeing now at the UCLA Community School, a public school in Pico Union. The school is located in a poor, densely populated neighborhood comprised of recent Central American immigrants and refugees. Established in 2009 through a partnership between UCLA, LAUSD and the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the school is now a model of success. Designated as a “pilot school,” it is a district school given charter-like autonomy over curriculum budget and staffing. Since its creation over 200 faculty and students from UCLA have contributed over 40,000 hours of service to the school. Today, the school sends 90% of its students to college, including several who were admitted last year to the University of California. That partnership is now being expanded to other schools in LA’s poorest neighborhoods.
Education policy in California should be designed to promote and incentivize similar partnerships with other institutions in more schools throughout the state. We have ample evidence that schools serving our poorest students can’t solve the challenges they face without higher levels of support from community partners that can address the social needs of poor children. This issue is at the heart of the lawsuit filed in August of this year (2015) against the Compton public schools. In the next few weeks the courts will decide whether “complex trauma” should be regarded as a disability and therefore require schools to do more to meet the needs of such children. If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the case could have far reaching implications throughout California and possibly the nation.
This is just a starting point for a critical discussion of the Broad proposal and the expansion of charter schools generally. Given how grossly under-funded public schools in LA and most of California are, it is admirable that the Broad Foundation is willing to spend its resources to improve education. However, we should not allow the size of the “gift” or the power of the interests behind it, to preempt a thorough discussion of the issues this type of reform raises. Los Angeles, like most American cities, already has a school system characterized by a high degree of racial segregation and social inequality. It is essential that policy play a role in reducing these tendencies rather than exacerbating them.
If you have any thoughts on this or would like to contribute to an ongoing discussion in the
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