On November 12, parents of children at Gratts Elementary in Los Angeles received a flier, in Spanish, warning that if they signed a petition to convert their neighborhood school into a charter school they would be deported. This threat, though bogus, teaches parents and policy makers a lesson about the forces opposing education reform in California.
In August the Los Angeles Unified School District passed a Public School Choice resolution allowing as many as 250 schools to be turned around with new operators. The charter school application deadline was November 16, four days after the deportation fliers appeared. Union bosses have threatened legal action against the LAUSD choice plan but sent mixed signals on the source of fliers.
“They think we had something to do with this,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles. “Well they must not have checked our track record.”
UTLA vice president Julie Washington told reporters, “I’m not going to say we don’t have some members who are resisting change. You have that in any organization.”
One notes that workers attempting to establish a new union to rival the Union of Healthcare Workers also received threats of deportation if they joined the startup. Union distaste for competition, however, is nowhere stronger than on the education front.
Union opposition to charter schools is nothing new—especially in Los Angeles. Ironically, however, the late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was a leading proponent of charter schools, which are public schools that follow the same admissions and testing requirements as traditional public schools except they operate independently of school district bureaucracies. This flexibility enables higher levels of achievement and innovation. Charter schools are performing well in low-income, multilingual and highly transient neighborhoods.
For example, American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland has again outperformed traditional local public schools with an Academic Performance Index of 933 and superior performance at the individual grade level. A full 79 percent of American Indian 11th-grade students scored proficient or advanced in English on the California State Test in 2008. In ninth-grade geometry nearly eight out 10 students scored at the proficient and advanced level.
Compare that record to Oakland High with 23 percent of 11th graders scoring proficient or higher in English and less than two out of 10 students scoring proficient or advanced in ninth-grade geometry. American Indian has 92 percent of student qualifying for the free- and-reduced lunch program, compared to 73 percent of Oakland High students. Moreover, American Indian has a parent population of nearly 70 percent that did not graduate high school, while only 38 percent of Oakland High parents did not graduate high school.
The LAUSD choice plan could produce similar results in Los Angeles. Some teachers are aware that even the prospect of more charter schools can promote improved achievement.
“We think some of the students are going to charters,” said Jose Lara, a high-school teacher in Los Angeles. “We’ve got to improve our educational program and prove to the community that we’re doing a good job as well.”
Charter schools are a threat only to those who fear genuine competition. Educators should look to charter schools as models for practices that work. These include high expectations, innovation, and more choice. Sweden has already established a universal voucher that allows parents to place their children in any school, government or independent. California, a low-achieving state, should follow suit.
In the meantime, whoever distributed the threatening fliers wants to limit reform efforts and keep parents powerless. Parents should ignore threats and push for the power to choose the school they believe best meets the educational needs of their children.