A major front in the perpetual war between California’s educational establishment and school reform groups is the role of charter schools, which function outside the traditional structure and are semi-free to experiment with new methods of teaching.
Like the larger conflict, the charter school battle is waged in multiple venues – within school districts, in the Legislature, in the courts and, ultimately, in the electoral arena.
It pits charter school advocates, who range from billionaire Eli Broad to immigrant parents, against the California Teachers Association and union-allied school officials.
It is almost entirely a battle within the Democratic Party, as this year’s elections in a number of legislative and school board elections will demonstrate anew. Broad and other wealthy reformers are backing Democrats who agree with them on charters and other reform issues while the CTA and its allies have their own slates of candidates.
A fierce clash in the state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, typifies the highly emotional issue.
L.A. Unified has seen tens of thousands of its students move into charters, and Broad’s foundation has proposed that charters take in half of the district’s mostly Latino and black students, saying it will give them better shots at high-quality educations.
The district’s board, most of whose members are allied with United Teachers Los Angeles, has unanimously opposed Broad, saying it would “view our communities as a public education marketplace and our children as commodities.”
This month, UTLA issued a report blaming leakage of students to charters for the district’s deep financial problems because charter students take their state and local support with them when they transfer.
Furthermore, L.A. Unified has rejected petitions for new charters based on the state’s “parent trigger” law that allows parents to seek control of their poor-performing schools.
The rationale for rejection is that the Academic Performance Index, which rates schools and has been the basis for parental intervention, has been suspended by the state pending the creation of a new accountability system.
Reformers have accused the state Board of Education of dragging its feet and favoring a “multiple measures” system that, critics say, would not give parents a clear picture of their schools and thus undercut the parent trigger process.
A similar battle is raging in Oakland Unified, whose superintendent, Antwan Wilson, received training at a Broad-supported academy and has tried to make it easier for parents to shift their kids into charters. Wilson has become a lightning rod for criticism by Oakland’s teachers union.
Meanwhile, in the Capitol, legislators allied with the unions have introduced several bills that would hamstring the charter school movement, and one is seeking a critical audit of a college prep charter network in Los Angeles.
However, charters have a friend – most of the time – in Gov. Jerry Brown. As mayor of Oakland, he founded a charter school and he’s placed $20 million in “startup funds” for new charters in his 2016-17 budget.