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Commentary: A blanket ban on new charters makes little sense. We need more, not less, of what works

Emilio Pack and Cristina de Jesus | January 28, 2019

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There’s a simple and hard truth to public education in Los Angeles: education access in our city has never been equitable. Most of our well-off families live in neighborhoods with excellent neighborhood schools or can afford, and choose, private school. But for the vast majority of kids in our city — particularly low-income students, students of color and English learners — paths to access a great, free, public school were limited for decades. And on Tuesday, the Board of Education may make access to great schools even more challenging if it endorses a ban on any new charter schools.

In the early 1990s, a critical moment for our city, charter public schools — overseen and regulated by L.A. Unified and operated directly by non-profit organizations and their school communities — were introduced in California to help give every kid, regardless of ZIP code, access to the type of high-quality education that wealthy families take for granted. Since then, our city has been a proof point that when we give educators more control of resources to run schools, the flexibility to do what they know works and accountability for the results, we can truly improve education outcomes for kids in every neighborhood.

We have proof today that charter public schools have helped to dramatically accelerate the learning for kids in Los Angeles who need it the most. L.A. Unified has been upheld as a national model for charter authorizers when it comes to approving and overseeing schools that help black and brown students achieve.

According to research by Stanford University, charters generate the learning equivalent of four extra months in math and 2.5 months in reading. For low-income Latino students, for every two years that they are enrolled in a charter school, they gain well over three years of learning in math and more than 2.5 years of learning in English language arts, compared to what is happening in LAUSD district schools.  The 2018 state tests results show charter schools performed better for every measured student group across math and English language tests. This decade, only seven schools in L.A. Unified have won the National Blue Ribbon award: six of the seven are charter schools where students are predominantly low-income students of color.

But now, the Board of Education is on the precipice of robbing our city of this important lever for innovation. Tuesday’s Board of Education resolution endorsing a ban on new charter schools isn’t based on research, and it isn’t good policymaking. It would cut off parent choice and cripple one of our city’s best-proven strategies for education innovation and student success. Schools like the CHIME Institute and WISH Academy are national leaders in special education practices. Networks like KIPP LA Public Schools, Ednovate and Alliance College-Ready Public Schools are helping our most underserved students get to and through college at rates far beyond the national average.

A blanket ban on any new charter schools, even replications of high-performing organizations with student waitlists, makes little sense. When researchers at Stanford University studied charter school caps, they found that charter caps lead to significantly lower academic growth.  The U.S. Department of Education concluded that they “are of little value in the quest for [school] quality.”

To be clear, the anti-charter rhetoric that is permeating the education conversation in L.A. is not backed by evidence. Two recent major studies of charter school research found that in nearly every case, charter schools had a positive or neutral impact on the learning of students who stayed in traditional district schools.

This makes sense here, too. Over the past 25 years, even as charter schools have expanded, L.A. Unified’s graduation rate had nearly doubled. Most of that credit should go to the hardworking principals, teachers and students in L.A. Unified, who have moved to embrace innovative models and more flexibility for educators, too. But some of that credit can be shared with the educators in charter schools who have proven that every child can succeed if given the right support and setting. All schools in Los Angeles are better today than they were before charters existed.

It would be naïve to say that charter schools have no impact on the district. But it is even more naïve, and harmful to kids, to say that the only way to address these challenges is to ban something that works. Instead, we should be working together toward solutions that support every student. The legislature can increase per-pupil funding for all kids, bringing us to and above the national average.

The state could also do what Massachusetts does to help district budgets without removing options for families. This concept, called “hold-harmless” funding, would allow the district to keep stable funding when a parent decides that a charter school is the best option for her child. We haven’t broached that conversation in California. But we should. And to do that, we must tackle these issues together instead of blaming one part of our education community for decades-long systemic dysfunction.

Not every charter school is successful. And a few have even been downright bad. But we already have a proven way to deal with this problem. Every five years, the L.A. Unified board has to vote to reauthorize every charter school. Schools that are not working should be closed, and this board has the power and overwhelming support to follow through with that.

But there aren’t enough great public schools in our city. Educators across L.A. need to have more control, more flexibility to personalize learning and be creative in the classroom, and more funding to ensure our kids have everything they need. And we need more, not less, of what works. We need our public officials to choose kids over politics. The charter community stands ready to work with the district to create solutions for every kid. A new charter ban in a city where they are working best for kids who need charters most isn’t one of them.

Emilio Pack is the Executive Director of STEM Prep Schools, and Cristina de Jesus is the President and CEO of Green Dot Public Schools California. They are the co-chairs of the Los Angeles Advocacy Council, a council of charter school leaders that work together to improve public education for all students in Los Angeles.

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