There is no other honest and robust conversation that needs to be held in this city as the one dealing with public education. Anything we collectively want to achieve revolves around as to how well we educate our children. Our self-governed political system is not sustainable if our schools fail to educate our children. Yes, public education is the foundation or the thread that weaves together that social fabric that sustains our democracy. And, economic vitality heavily relies on an educated work-force, indeed progress in itself is not attainable if our children are not well-educated.
Civic leaders, the business community, teachers, parents, and other civic groups have to elevate the conversation about the challenges facing our public education. And, said conversation has to go beyond charter schools vs. traditional schools.
Millions of dollars are spent in school board races in these proxy wars between political action committees from charter schools folks and the teachers union. Teachers union screams privatization and charter school folks use the same buzzwords: “Accountability” and “Choice.” Debates in these school board races must structure a more productive conversation. And it should go beyond the usual attacks between these two groups.
In this new globalized economic order, the abilities to read, write, and think critically are vital in order for our kids to compete with Indian and Chinese kids. 60% to 70% of LAUSD’s students get a high school diploma that they can’t read. Now, what happens to the ones who dropped out. We are living a whole generation behind.
Los Angeles Unified School District-LAUSD has an annual budget of almost $8 billion dollars, with 2,400 administrators, 26, 000 teachers and 31,000 other employees. This truly is a massive educational institution. The district is responsible to educate approximately 521,890 students. 75% of them are Latinos and about 10% are African-Americans. The number of enrolled students has been going down in the last years. The district has been losing students by the hour due to the proliferation of charter schools and the profound lack of affordable housing for the poor parents whose children attend this district.
The problems at LAUSD are profound and have been this way for at least the last decade. Success in graduating more students have proved tenuous. Yes, “low expectations from our children in our public schools” should be the civil right issue of our time. It is a tremendous disservice to communities of color to allow Latino and Back students to graduates with Ds. It is a false sense of accomplishment that doesn’t help anybody. And there are those intractable fiscal problems with both pensions and unfunded health benefits as well as staff and faculty demanding salaries increases.
In Los Angeles, everyone who cares for the education of our children agrees that the structural and systemic problems facing LAUSD can be unmanageable. But, we passionately disagree on how to fix these problems. The conversation basically driving the debate about public education is divided into two prominent groups: One that believes that charter schools are the panacea for all these problems. The other group is the United Teachers Union, Los Angeles-UTLA is the one pushing back here in Los Angeles. The teachers union rejects the charter schools model. They see it as a corporate business model and inadequate for educating children. And, charter schools blatantly blame the teachers union for rejecting even the most incremental change in public education. These charter schools folks have also successfully convinced wealthy individuals and powerful foundations that the best way to improve public education is by replacing all public schools with charter schools.
Here is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that we all overlook when we talk about the problems with education: Poverty. If we look deeper into the problems facing public education, we will soon find out that the root of the problem facing public education is poverty. Yes, poverty and the profound lack of good jobs force parents to work from eighty to one hundred hours a week to support their families. The immense social cost that takes place when these parents hardly ever see their children let alone helping them guide with homework. An honest conversation about fixing our schools can start neither by attacking teachers nor by talking about the evils of privatization of our public education. Those who do just that truly don’t want to explore real solutions.
But what are Charter schools? These schools started proliferating back in the early 1990s they are publicly funded and independently run. The authorizations for setting up charter schools vary from state to state, some states delegate this responsibility to local school boards. “Today, they enroll about 3.1 million students in 43 states.” Here in Los Angeles at LAUSD, there are approximate “224 independent charters plus 23 affiliated ones for a total of 277 charter schools. The majority of them located in the poorest school districts of Los Angeles. LA Unified has more charter schools than any other school district in the nation.” LA Unified District also has unaffiliated charters which are run by the district. These charter schools don’t enjoy all the freedom that regular charter schools do. There are a “total of 154,000 students from both regular and unaffiliated charter schools within LAUSD.” Almost a $500 million dollar privately funded plan is in the works in Los Angeles to open more charter schools. Teachers’ union see this as an aggressive plan to utterly dismantled LAUSD and replace it with all these unregulated schools.
In the summer of 2016, the civil right organization NAACP concerned about issues of accountability and transparency publicly called for a “nationwide moratorium on charter school expansion.” This organization pointed out that charter schools get public funding and yet they resist accountability. Charter schools are being alleged pick and choose the best students hence they tend to do better on tests. There is also alleged that students who have been enrolled in these schools and they start falling behind these are immediately sent back to the traditional schools. They have no programs for these students, critics point out. Students who have a network of support don’t need charter schools they can easily succeed in any school.
Most teachers at some point have heard that famous line from Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman: “He who can does. He who cannot, teaches.” This line has been used to put teachers down or to demonize them. Although what those who blame teachers might not know is that the most creative and greatest minds this world has produced were teachers. Yes, from Aristotle to Galileo to Mozart to Sir Isaac Newton, they all were teachers. Even some of the civil right leaders who were the force behind the social changes that took place in this country in 1950 and 1960s were teachers.
Yes, we must have some sort of basic benchmarks to evaluate teachers. But, using test scores to solely punish teacher is counterproductive. These scores should be used as a reference to make improvements in our educational system. We have an educational system in place right now where the teachers have become the workers and students are the product. Experts argue that students should be “the workers and the knowledge should be the product.” The responsibility for the creation of knowledge should be given to the students. Since the process will give students the tools needed to deal with real problems in life. Yes, no more “test and punish” but rather “assess and improve.”
Those behind charter schools must somehow understand that these schools can’t be the elixir for every ill. And the teachers at traditional schools also need to embrace change and try to engage parents and others stakeholders in our communities. The narrative about the problems facing public education is being controlled by folks behind these schools. “Accountability,” “choice,” are strategically chosen words that have resonated well with those who want to see our kids do well in schools. Yes, there must be room for charter schools in our public education but I think that even the most optimistic cheerleader for charter schools is skeptical about replacing all traditional schools in the second largest school district in the nation with charter schools.
Yes, nobody will seriously deny the problems facing our public school systems. The problems are broad and deep. And they require serious competent leaders to solve them. The problems should be taken on in a collective effort across this country. Public schools shouldn’t be abandoned. Public schools have a rich history of helping everyone. Yes like any other profession, there are some teachers who really don’t belong in the classroom and they should be removed.
Finally, Austin Beutner, the former Los Angeles Times’ CEO has been officially given the job for the next three years to run LAUSD. The newly appointed superintendent co-chaired a task force that examined the serious problems facing the district. Although charter school supporters view Austin Beutner as an allied. But, many argue that he is a deep thinker who knows this city well; a creative problem solver; and he will surely structure solutions for the best interest of students.
Support and excitement have come from the business community and leaders in the philanthropic community such as Robert Ross, president, and CEO from the California Endowment as well as from prominent Latina Leader in this city, Antonia Hernandez, President and CEO of the California Community Foundation. “Austin is a proven leader, who is committed to expanding access to opportunities for underserved communities of color, particularly children.” Hernandez wrote. Even Journalist and filmmaker, Antonio Vargas released a statement, “Austin has the vision to create pathways to opportunity for all communities, which is what L.A. Unified needs now.” I searched for any public statement from leaders from the public education community and couldn’t find one. They are probably figuring out how it could possibly be that only two board members voted against Mr. Beutner as the vote was 5-2. Board members, Scott Schmerelson and George McKenna were the ones who voted against Beutner.
Thank you for reading
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Sanchez, Claudio. “Just What IS A Charter School, Anyway? NPR-How Learning Happens 1st, March 2017. Web. 11 Nov. 2017.
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Stokes, Kyle. “Sources: LAUSD board expected to name Austin Beutner as next superintendent.” 89.3 KPCC 1st, May 2017. Web. 1st May 2017.
Szymanski, Mike. “New Data: Where are the charter schools in LAUSD?. LA School Report 5th Oct. 2017. Web. 10 Nov. 2017.
Waiting for Superman. Dir. Davis Guggenheim. Perf. Geoffrey Canada, Bill Strickland, Michelle Rhee, Randi Weingarten. Paramount, 2010. Film.
Picture Credit: I took this picture at a high school where I am currently teaching a class