School Choice & Charters Opinion

Broad Foundation Plan Ignites Charter School War in L.A.

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — September 28, 2015 6 min read
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Projections of enrollment in Los Angeles Unified showing charters surpassing district schools (From The Great Public Schools Now Initiative)

Grab your gas mask, trenching tool, and steel helmet. The charter school wars are coming to Los Angeles, extending and deepening the trench warfare that has been going on for nearly a decade and a half. There will be poison gas media campaigns and, as in all wars, truth will be the first casualty. But if history is a guide, there will be no winners.

Since the 1999 school board election, civic elites in Los Angeles have tried unsuccessfully to control the Los Angeles Unified School District board and hand pick the superintendent. They have been repelled by a coalition of district loyalists led by United Teachers Los Angeles and others who chafe at a cartoonish version of “billionaires and privatizers” taking over the country’s second largest school district.

Last Tuesday, Los Angeles Times reporter Howard Blume disclosed a $490-million plan to create 260 new charter schools. More than 240 charters are already located within the LAUSD.

The effort is headed by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which has heavily backed charter schools and which convened potential supporters of the plan.

Battle Lines Drawn

Now the battle lines have been drawn around charter schools. Rather than, or maybe in addition to, taking over the district itself, the civic elites plan to hollow out the district by opening enough charters to take away half the enrollment. School board members are already taking sides. “While I continue to support and be proud of the successful charter schools we have in Los Angeles, this plan is not one for transforming our public schools, but an outline for a hostile takeover,” school board president Steve Zimmer told the Times. Former board president Monica Garcia is open to charter expansion. She told L.A. School Report, “I would go to any philanthropic arm and say ‘Please invest in our kids,’” “We have many, many good strategies that need support.”

A 44-page plan, posted by the Times, (title page at left) details the charter school development plan and some of the political and organizational hurdles it will face. Among them is the difficulty charters face in recruiting and keeping talented teachers, who have a tendency to leave for higher paid school district jobs. It also details the net worth (in $-billions) of some potential donors, who after seeing their names published may not be so inclined.

Make no mistake, this effort is not a gracious attempt to rescue students from “failing public schools” or to provide an innovative learning experience. It’s an effort to transform the century-old institution of public education. As the Broad plan says, “Thanks to the strength of its charter leaders and teachers, as well as its widespread civic and philanthropic support, Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to create the largest, highest-performing charter sector in the nation. Such an exemplar would serve as a model for all large cities to follow.”

The war will be expensive and nasty. It already is. Newly elected board member Ref Rodriguez, who co-founded a charter school, is intelligent and genuinely pleasant. But his campaign against incumbent Bennett Kayser last spring was characterized by negative attack ads. The contest was the most expensive in the history at $135 a vote, compared to $20 a vote in the Romney campaign to unseat Barack Obama. It was clear from the beginning that favoring or opposing charter schools was the key to the contest, and the Broad report counts it as a move “in a positive direction.”

Expect More School Board Election Battles

Expect much more of this. School Board chair Steve Zimmer has been told that $10-million is available to any viable candidate who will run against him in 2017.

The war will not be confined to the school district. (See targed neighborhoods for charter schools at left.) It will affect labor politics, both inside United Teachers Los Angeles and in the relationship of the teachers union to organized labor in the city, which has often taken a critical stance toward the school district. It will spill over into mayoral politics and efforts to define the educational policies within the Democratic Party. (The new head of Democrats for Education Reform was in town last month, promoting school choice as the reform strategy.) Opposition to or support for charter schools as a key education reform strategy will become a litmus test for Democratic candidates for the California legislature, the campaign for governor, the senate races to see who will replace veteran senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and in the 2016 presidential race.

It will spill over into other school districts. If you are in Sacramento, Oakland, or San Diego, expect it to reach your borders. Maybe Riverside, Santa Ana, Pasadena, and Pomona. Nor will it stop at the California state line.

There will be no winners. Stalemate and instability have characterized Los Angeles education politics since the 1999 school board election, when community elites, in this case led by former mayor Richard Riordan, supported a slate of reform candidates for school board. Trenches were dug then, and the subsequent back and forth battles have never produced a stable victory. In the 15 years that followed, the superintendency of LAUSD has turned over seven times, the direction of the school board majority four times. (Long Beach, which is thought of as a model among urban school districts, has had two leaders and a single developing-over-time reform plan.)

Expect Massive Counterattack

There will also be a massive counterattack, not just against the Broad plan for Los Angeles but also against the establishment of charter schools themselves. The counterattack itself is predictable, historic, and closely linked to the rise of populist politics in urban areas. In Newark, New York, Washington, D.C, and to an extent in Chicago, the corporate reform agenda has become the object of successful political opposition.

The dimensions of the counterattack in Los Angeles and California are not yet known, but I expect that efforts to repeal the charter school law in California will move from the fringes of politics to the front trench in the war. Opposition to additional charters in LAUSD will become a pivotal issue within the school board.

Expect efforts to make charter schools truly public, to make their board meetings and records open to inspection, to make details of their operations subject to public records act requirements, as school districts now are. Expect journalistic attention to wages and working conditions of charter school teachers, the salaries of their managers, and the tax exempt status of some of the advocacy organizations.

Making charter schools a pivotal issue in education politics will vastly complicate the search for a new superintendent in Los Angeles. The pool of candidates who know how to run a mega-city school system is not large to begin with. The number of competent candidates willing to sit in the superintendent’s chair between already warring camps on the school board approaches zero.

The first casualty in this war, as it is in all wars, will be truth. Expect more talking down of the existing school district, more blather about “billionaires” taking over education, more pleas by parents lined up to support one side or the other, and expect that ideologically based data analysis will replace real research.

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.