The War on Charter Schools

Newly installed New York mayor Bill de Blasio ignited a nationwide firestorm of protest by his decision to close down three charter schools, which are independent, mostly nonunionized, deregulated public schools run by parents, nonprofits, and others. Yet there has been very little national notice of a similar recent action by the Los Angeles school board, which has put two high-performing charter schools out of business.

In one of his first acts as mayor, the liberal de Blasio evicted one charter school from the building it has been sharing with a regular public school and denied space to two new schools scheduled to open in the fall. The three belong to the Success Academy network of charter schools, which serve low-income minority children and have been hugely successful in raising students’ achievement. For instance, at one of the Success Academy schools in Harlem, 80 percent of students passed the 2013 state math test, while just 5 percent of students at the nearby regular public school passed it.

As de Blasio was throwing disadvantaged charter-school students overboard, the Los Angeles school board was doing the same thing to some of its charter students. As opposed to regular public schools, which can operate forever regardless of their performance, charter schools must renew their charters every few years. In February, the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) voted against the renewal applications of Aspire Antonio Maria Lugo Academy and Aspire Ollin University Preparatory Academy, two of the district’s high-scoring schools.

At Lugo Academy, an elementary school where 99 percent of the students are Hispanic and 94 percent are disadvantaged, an amazing 91 percent of third-graders scored at or above the proficient level on the state math test in 2013. At Ollin, a middle school, which has the same student demographics as Lugo, seven out of ten eighth-graders scored at or above the proficient level on the state Algebra I exam.

Los Angeles school superintendent John Deasy, who supported the charter schools, called their performance “unquestionable and unassailable.” The school board, however, ignored their impressive performance and denied the renewals based on the charters’ sin of not contracting for special-education services with the district’s special-ed agency.

Since state law doesn’t require charters to use district special-ed services, the two Aspire schools contracted with an agency in El Dorado County in Northern California, which provides the same amount of oversight and better data services for less money. In ham-fisted retaliation for not using district services, the LAUSD board voted down the schools’ renewal applications, even though the district’s own special-ed chief could find no problem with the services being offered by the charters.

After the vote, pro-Aspire school-board member Tamar Galatzan challenged her fellow board member Bennett Kayser, a retired teacher, on his vote against the two charter schools, both of which are located in his district. “For the record, Mr. Kayser,” she inquired, “will you tell us why you chose this for your neighborhood?” Kayser, shamefully, refused to answer.

The debate over special-education services, however, masks the likely real reason for the denials: politics. Like de Blasio in New York, members of the anti-Aspire majority on the Los Angeles school board are in the pro-teachers’-union camp. The Los Angeles teachers’ union has long been openly hostile to charter schools.

For example, one recent president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) famously draped anti-charter-school T-shirts around his office while being interviewed for a film documentary. Writing in Union Watch, former teacher Larry Sand noted that at a February symposium for candidates for the presidency of the UTLA, “it seemed as if each aspirant who spoke on the issue [of charters] was trying to position himself as Charter School Enemy #1.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that the UTLA endorsed Bennett Kayser, who was also endorsed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. The union spent almost $620,000 on his 2011 election. When Kayser voted against the high-performing Aspire charter schools in his own district, the union got what it had paid for.

Aspire is appealing the LAUSD board’s decision to the Los Angeles County Board of Education, which should render a decision in mid-April. A hopeful Kate Ford, Aspire’s Los Angeles superintendent, says, “AMLA and Ollin will go forth doing great things for our students and families.”

The actions of anti-charter ideologues on both coasts demonstrate that the future of our children remains in jeopardy. For all the talk about education reform, too many Democratic political leaders like Bill de Blasio and Bennett Kayser are cheerleaders for or beholden to the agendas of the powerful teachers’ unions. In an election year, voters should bear this reality in mind when they go to the polls.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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