School Choice & Charters Opinion

Is Philanthropy Plan for L.A. ‘Great’ or Just Grating?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 17, 2016 4 min read
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The long awaited Great Public Schools Now plan was announced today. A glossy 16-page description is up on the organization’s web site, and the organization announced some initial grants at a press conference. It’s distressing that an organization—that either has or is seeking to raise hundreds of millions of dollars—would come up with a document that is simultaneously vague and provocative.

For the uninitiated, GPSN is the successor to a plan associated with the Broad Foundation that was leaked last summer. That plan announced intent to bring the number of charter school students to half the enrollment in of L.A.'s public schools. It was immediately denounced. I declared it to be the opening salvo in what would be a charter school war. Retrenchment followed backlash. Organizing for the plan was moved, aspirations scaled back, and the idea broadened to support the founding of “good’ schools regardless of whether they were charters or district operated. Former California Charter Schools Association executive Myrna Castrejón was hired as executive director. The organizers went looking for money.

It’s too early to say much about the plan itself. The idea of increasing the numbers of good schools in Los Angeles is bathed in generalities, and we won’t know more until GPSN starts acting. One question, of course, is whether (and how) philanthropic funds will flow to support successful Los Angeles Unified School District campuses, both Pilot Schools and traditional neighborhood schools. The first three grants, announced Thursday, were to a charter school, Teach for America, and an after school program.

No Visible Peace Plan

I am not at all encouraged by the initial announcements. According to Howard Blume at the Los Angeles Times, GPSN is to follow its announcement with a media campaign that includes the tagline “Let’s stop fighting and start fixing.” But nothing in the plan suggests a peace plan or a truce.

The plan presents a four-step action logic: engage communities, help train and recruit teachers, help schools get facilities, and replicate successful schools in the neighborhoods it has targeted. I’ve spent a good bit of time with community organizers, and Castrejón has credentials as one. I’ve never seen an organizer not organize against something. In Los Angeles schools, the two primary targets are the school district itself and the teacher’s union. Given that as a starting point, it’s hard to think that peace will follow any time soon.

The teacher education agenda is aimed almost entirely at getting qualified teachers for charters, something that they’ve had a hard time doing lately since the labor market has tightened up, and the facilities assistance is entirely charter related. So the skeptics that maintain that this new plan is just the Broad plan in diplomatic dress may be forgiven for their reserve. (Broad is a supporter of GPSN, and Gregory McGinity, the foundation’s executive director, sits on the board.)

What Would Bring Peace?

What would bring peace? 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.

It is said that Castrejón and LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King have met to discuss the implications of the plan. I hope that their conversations were more substantive than the published plan.

The plan has huge blind spots. It doesn’t even try to sketch out what a good school system would look like, how these schools would relate to one another, whether the dedicated teachers that the plan talks about are to be employed as charter school teachers on employment-at-will contracts or whether they will have the economic status and employment security of public school teachers.

It fails to acknowledge that charter schools are inherently parasitic; they require a healthy host school district to survive. This is not a matter of being generous to the school districts or even forgiving of its shortcomings. It’s a matter of self-preservation for the charter sector. It’s not the job of GPSN to solve the fiscal and organizational issues of the Los Angeles Unified School Districts, but it is in their interest that they are solved.

What School Improvement?

It also gives the back of the hand to the idea of improvement. While it is understandable that outsiders don’t want to involve themselves with the grubby business of school turnarounds, missing the logic and the capacity for continuous improvement, which is the signal effort of the state of California, puts the plan well out of step with the rest of the state.

This plan doesn’t build system capacity. 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 schools could adopt change. I’d share data and best practices.

Is this plan good or bad for Los Angeles? On balance, good. It continues longstanding ideas—such as building a decentralized, neighborhood-focused group of schools— and it puts some fresh energy and funding behind them. The political tension it creates may be good for the system overall. It certainly got everyone’s attention.

Next, it’s Michelle King’s turn. She has a plan of her own due to be released later this summer. I’d work hard to make that plan substantive, hard-hitting, and very readable. And— given the general advice to keep your friends close and your enemies closer—if I were in the superintendent’s office or on the LAUSD board I’d be talking frequently with the GPSN folks.

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.