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What charter school growth has to do with the LA teachers strike

Protesters at Breed Street elementary school this week. Photo credit: Anna Scott

The Los Angeles’ teachers strike has entered its fifth day. Class sizes and school staffing remain key sticking points in the impasse between United Teachers Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District. However, there’s a much bigger issue at the heart of the strike: the proliferation of charter schools throughout L.A. in recent years, which striking teachers see as an existential threat. UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl publicly called for a cap on charter schools this week, while teachers on the picket lines also put the issue front and center.

Outside Breed Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights on Tuesday morning, which shares a campus with a charter school called Extera, third grade teacher Jaime Bermudez — or “Mr. B” as he’s known to students — held a homemade sign calling for an end to the “charterization” of L.A.’s public schools. “Teaching is not a moneymaking profession,” he said, brushing past the subject of higher pay. “The teachers are trying to save public education.”

What are charter schools and what is this fight about?

Charter schools are nonprofit, privately operated public schools. They receive government funding but have more freedom in their curriculums than traditional public schools, manage their own budgets, and their teachers typically are not unionized. Some take the form of small start-ups initiated by parents or teachers, some are traditional district schools that converted to charters, while others are part of larger chains with multiple locations.

Los Angeles Unified has 224 independent charter schools, more than any other district in the country. The sheer number is part of what’s behind the controversy.“The proliferation over the last several years has been unchecked,” said UCLA education professor Pedro Noguera, “without regard to the impact on public education generally.”

One impact is a competition for students.

At Breed Street Elementary School, third grade teacher Jaime “Mr. B” Bermudez said it’s often the highest-achieving students who leave for charters. He recalled a boy named Brian who did extremely well on standardized tests.“He scored perfect in second grade, math and language arts. He scored perfect in third grade – he was my student,” Bermudez said. “In fifth grade he left [for a charter]. That’s fine — kids deserve a great education — but…we shouldn’t pay a price for that.”

The price is less state funding, which is tied to enrollment.  LAUSD has seen declining enrollment for more than a decade for a variety of reasons, but charters are a factor. When top students like Brian leave, schools like Breed Street Elementary end up with a greater proportion of high-needs students but fewer resources to serve them. That drain on funding is why teachers like Bermudez partly blame charter schools for some of the staffing issues central to the strike, like too few nurses and librarians.

“It’s really like having Burger King and McDonald’s exist in the same building,” said Jeff Williams, a history teacher at Daniel Webster Middle School, which shares a campus with two charter schools, Citizens of the World and Magnolia Science Academy 4. “They are our competitors but the district acts like we’re not in a competition.”

All of this is why UTLA President Caputo-Pearl has called for a cap on charter schools in L.A.

What do charter supporters say?

Ideally, charter schools should complement and provide healthy competition for traditional public schools. In fact, part of the idea behind charter schools in the first place was to provide laboratories for experimentation that could then export their best innovations to traditional public schools. They were also introduced to give families choices beyond their local district schools.

“I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that if a student chooses not to go to their local school, they’re taking money away from the district,” said Michael Sweeney, a former charter school teacher and parent whose daughter attends an LAUSD magnet school. “They’re taking their funding and putting it into the school that they choose.”

Earlier this week, after striking teachers rallied outside the California Charter Schools Association’s L.A. office downtown, CCSA President and CEO Myrna Castrejon released astatement saying UTLA and charter school advocates shouldn’t be pitted against each other, but instead “marching together in Sacramento demanding increased statewide funding for our most vulnerable students.”

In an interview with KCRW Castrejon said charter schools have provided much-needed options for some of L.A.’s neediest communities.“In Los Angeles in particular there’s a long history of charter schools going into the most underserved communities, where there are not sufficient options that are performing at high levels,” she said, “for students who otherwise would have to bus away two hours each way to find a really high performing option.”

What’s Trump got to do with it?

At a school picket line this week striking teachers chanted, “When I say ‘charters’ you say ‘Trump!”

Why?

Well, charter schools are part of the larger movement of “school choice,” which also includes things like private school vouchers or homeschooling. You can find a good 2017 Washington Post primer on school choice here.

The Trump administration has embraced school choice policies, which puts charter school advocates in blue states in an uncomfortable position. But Casterjon of CCSA says it’s unfair to lump charter schools in with all the other elements of school choice accused of undermining  of public education.

When it comes to how charter schools operate, she said, policies vary greatly from state to state. Here in California, “our blue state politics have resulted in blue state laws.” For example, California outlawed for-profit charter schools in 2018. She added, “if [Trump] wants to ride on our coattails, we don’t want it.”

Asked about the picket line chants, Noguera of UCLA said, “that’s the way the politics have developed, in a very polarized way. They’re trying to equate all charters and privatization and vouchers with Trump, who is highly unpopular.”

Looking Ahead

Whenever the strike ends, the conflict over charter schools is likely continue. On March 5 there’s a special election to fill a vacant seat on the LAUSD Board of Education. The results could swing the board in a more or less charter-friendly direction.

Credits

Producer:
Anna Scott