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Charter Schools Lose in L.A.

March 02, 2010

By Marcus A. Winters

Last week, the Los Angeles school board had the opportunity to fundamentally improve its lowest-performing public schools by transferring them to successful charter-school operators. Instead, the board handed the schools right back to the teachers’ union that was responsible for their inferiority in the first place. Once again, just when major reform appeared to be right around the corner, the unions stepped in and crushed the opportunity for change.

Los Angeles has some very bad public schools. According to the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress — a standardized test administered by the U.S. Department of Education — just 39 percent of L.A.’s fourth-graders are even basically literate, and only 46 percent of the city’s eighth-graders have basic math proficiency. (This helps explain why fewer than half of Los Angeles high-school students graduate.) Things were looking so bad in the nation’s second-largest school district that the school board commissioned proposals from outside groups interested in taking over 13 of the worst schools and running 25 new campuses. Many pointed to this experiment as a potential national model for school reform.

Charter-school operators were an obvious choice to run the struggling schools. Charter schools are public schools that are not subject to the burdensome restrictions imposed by collective-bargaining agreements, which spell out all the tasks that teachers can’t be required to do and make it impossible to remove even the most ineffective instructors. Eager to expand, Los Angeles charter-school operators excitedly applied to run the failing schools.

But the local teachers’ union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, didn’t relish the prospect of transferring public schools to charter-school operators and their non-unionized teaching staffs. So the union helped groups of teachers submit their own proposals to run the schools, which suggested some changes to the schools’ operations but didn’t change the fact that the teachers would be covered by the city’s union contract. A separate group, led by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, also submitted applications; it too proposed to keep the schools subject to the existing union contract.

In the end, the school board awarded 28 schools to the union-sponsored groups, two schools to the mayor’s group, and one to a nonprofit. Only seven will be run by charters — and they don’t include any of the 13 failing schools. This is a huge missed opportunity. Freedom from the teachers’ unions is precisely what makes charter schools so good.

As an important study in Boston suggests, Los Angeles’s not-so-autonomous schools probably won’t be any better than the failing schools that they are replacing. Boston allows for two publicly financed alternatives to traditional public schools: charter schools and “pilot schools.” The main difference between the two is that pilot schools, which were developed by Boston’s teachers’ union, don’t operate autonomously from the union. They must be approved by the union before they can open their doors, and they are subject to several provisions (such as pay scale and seniority arrangements) of the local collective-bargaining agreements.

Last year, a team of distinguished researchers from Duke, MIT, Harvard, and the University of Michigan compared the effectiveness of Boston’s charter, pilot, and traditional public schools. When more students apply to a pilot or charter school than there are openings, the seats are allocated through a random lottery. The study compared the academic achievement of students who won the lottery (and could thus enroll in their chosen pilot or charter schools) with students who lost the lottery and had to return to traditional public schools, ensuring an apples-to-apples comparison of fundamentally similar students. The results: Students attending charter schools made significant improvements in English, math, and writing relative to their counterparts in traditional public schools. Students attending pilot schools, however, made no distinguishable improvements in any subject relative to traditional public-school students.

In short, teachers’ unions can’t fix public schools — they’re the problem. The lesson for Californians is that their new school operators, lacking autonomy from the unions and freedom from collective-bargaining restrictions, won’t provide a real alternative to the traditional public-school system. Other struggling urban school systems might benefit from letting outside operators turn around their failing schools. But if such policies are to have any chance of working, districts need to keep Boston’s experience in mind and bring in operators untainted by union influence.

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