School & District Management Opinion

Plan, Don’t Plea, for Charter School Peace

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — January 04, 2016 4 min read
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On New Year’s Eve, the Los Angeles Times issued a “why don’t we all get along” plea to stop what it calls “an epic educational battle” over expansion of charter schools. But as sincere as it is, the plea doesn’t begin to make clear the stark differences in interest between the charter school advocates and the children being educated by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The grist for the editorial is a University of California, Berkeley report that shows that students going to charter schools were generally performing at higher levels before they left district schools. The response to the report was entirely predictable: a salvo from each side about what achievement data mean.

In its print edition, the editorial is titled “The Ongoing War on Charters,” and the plea for peace appears in the drop (see picture at left). Oddly, the online edition contains a much more bland headline, but the text is the same. For the first time I’ve seen, the Times begins to recognize that despite demographic similarities, the populations attending district and charter schools are different. "[P]arents who are savvy and proactive about their children’s education—the kinds of parents who give their kids a head start on their schooling—are more likely to find outabout charter schools in the first place, attend their meetings, enter the lotteries for admission and then help their children succeed at those schools,” the editorial says.

Parent ‘Choosers': An Old Phenomenon

We’ve known about the active, choosing-parent phenomenon for decades. The 50-year rush to the suburbs was as much fueled by a search for better schools as it was for better housing. And every major city in the U.S. exhibits a flight of the professional middle class to private schools. In New Orleans, the laboratory for the charter school experiment, a quarter of the city’s children attend private schools, and those schools are 50 percent white compared to the district and charter schools which are 92 percent students of color.

What’s new, and given recognition in the Times editorial, is that the movement of students from district to charter schools has a profound impact on the district itself: “For instance, what’s the effect on district schools if charter schools draw off the higher-achieving students? Obviously, the district schools lose money when state and federal dollars follow those students to their new schools, but another important question as the number of charter schools grows is what the effect will be on the culture of schools and on their achievement levels as more motivated parents and their children abandon district schools.”

It’s Difficult to Expand Charters and Build the District

The realization that it is very difficult to expand charter offerings and improve district-run schools at the same time has dogged other school districts. Newark, New Jersey’s reform scheme tried to do both, but it left Cami Anderson, the superintendent brought in to implement district reforms, with a hopeless task. Charters were disproportionately attracting “the choosers,” the very same types of parents the Times editorialized about. Anderson told the mayor and state superintendent, “Your theories [of chartering and district reform] are on a collision course.”

In Dale Russakoff’s The Prize, Anderson calls chartering “the lifeboat theory of education reform.” She added, “I told the governor [Chris Christie] that I did not come here to shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic. I did not come here to phase the district out.”

The lack of an overall plan for charters and district schools was evident in Newark, and its absence is also recognized in Washington, D.C., where Superintendent Kaya Henderson recently said, “I think we are now at a point where the citizens in the city are saying, ‘How do these two systems work together because it doesn’t make sense to us?’”

It doesn’t make any sense in Los Angeles either. Certainly, both parties could learn from the research report, as the Times suggests. But these parties have real and substantive differences in interests, and let’s be clear: the charter folks are just as self-interested as the district.

A Five-Point Peace Plan

Earlier, I wrote about a Five Point Peace Plan and about ways the district could morph from its century-old industrial structure to a more modern network operation. I believe that the cost of war is much greater than the dividends from peace, and that the parties have undiscovered common interests that transcend their differences.

For example, I would put money (if I had any) behind designing a new learning system that would serve students in both charter and district schools. I would create a research and development agenda that would push the envelope on how students learn and provide ways that other schools could adopt change. I’d share data and best practices.

But nothing in the way politics are structured in Los Angles gives the combatants in this war much incentive to explore peace. The charter community moralizes, claiming that it is saving thousands of children from failing public schools. The teachers’ union claims that it is doing battle with the inherent corruption of big money influencing public policy. The school board remains divided.

The political default is war; peace will require real effort by a still-undeveloped civic coalition.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.