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Commentary: The political grandstanding of the LAUSD board

Guest contributor | March 4, 2016

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(From L): LAUSD school board members Monica Ratliff, Ref Rodriguez and Richard Vladovic

(From L): LAUSD school board members Monica Ratliff, Ref Rodriguez and Richard Vladovic

By Caroline Bermudez

With the Los Angeles Board of Education poised to consider the expansion of another successful charter school at its March 8 meeting, parents demanding more choice deserve to know what is driving the district’s questionable practices around charter review.

There is an anti-charter narrative so strong that it defies reason, and few illustrate it better than the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The board, according to charter school organizations, is denying their petitions to open new schools. Since last July, LA Unified has turned down seven petitions and approved seven others. Just two years ago, the approval rating for new charters was 89 percent.

The reasons LA Unified cites for some of these charter schools not being allowed to expand? The handling of food contracts and problems with signatures.

And while established charter schools tend to have their contracts renewed (this academic year, the approval rate was 100 percent, the previous year it was 97 percent), the process is not without pain.

Charter leaders have long complained that the list of items a school must “fix” to secure a renewal is onerous, time-consuming and has little to do with students or outcomes.

Hillel Aron of L.A. Weekly wrote about the efforts of a former LA Unified board member, Bennett Kayser, to turn down charter school applications at every opportunity or even close down high-performing schools.

According to Aron’s article, Andrew Thomas, an education researcher who ran unsuccessfully for an LA Unified board position last year, said of Kayser at a candidate debate: “To vote on principle or ideology to close a school—it’s beyond the pale for me.”

But intellectually dishonest (or bankrupt, as was the case with Kayser) criticisms of charter schools certainly do not begin or end in Los Angeles. Policy researcher Conor Williams has written about the petty battles waged against charters across the nation, silly squabbles that include allegations of copyright violation.

Yes, you read that correctly. Copyright violation.

A successful and wildly popular school got grief because it removed swear words from a book it was criticized for having its students read as it was deemed too offensive in the first place by, fittingly enough, a charter school opponent.

Does that sound as ridiculous to you as it does to me? I think I know the answer.

Williams rightly notes, “Charter school critics have abandoned any pretense of consistency—any talking points will do.”

These talking points, which are largely false, typically involve spouting nonsense about charters being corporate (they are, repeat after me, slowly and with feeling, public schools), funded by billionaires, or adhere to strict disciplinary policies.

(It’s worth noting I recently visited a charter school where its students practice yoga and happily run around the parking lot during recess, lending further proof that charters greatly differ from one another.)

Not only are these attacks bereft of reason, they sometimes veer into harassment, like doxing poor women of color who dare voice their support of the charter schools their children attend.

On March 8, LA Unified is expected to determine whether KIPP Comienza Community Prep, the highest-performing school serving low-income children in the entire state of California, can grow to accommodate additional grades.

Eighty-four percent of its fourth graders scored proficient or advanced in English language arts on the Smarter Balanced Assessment compared to 39 percent for the rest of the state. The numbers are similarly staggering for their math scores—81 percent at Comienza, versus 35 percent for all California students. Most of these children, 80 percent, qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

KIPP comes to the table with two decades of running successful schools in low-income communities, and a wealth of data about its results, including three federally funded research studies with the most recent one in 2015.

This should be an easy decision for the board.

Sarah Angel, managing director of advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association, expressed her confusion over the district’s reluctance to approve charter schools in a statement:

“It makes little sense that the district would start denying new charters when the district acknowledges the existing charters are succeeding. Successful charter schools should be supported by LAUSD to grow to serve more families in their communities, but instead, many of them are being prevented from growing. Those who are being denied those new schools are the families most in need of better schools and more choice in their neighborhoods.”

In a city dogged by educational shortcomings for its poor children of color, the LA Unified board seems to be letting political grandstanding come before giving more of its neediest children access into a proven foothold of educational equity.

Charter schools should receive careful scrutiny but to have proven, successful schools jump through unnecessary bureaucratic hoops is irresponsible—and nakedly ideological. Those entrusted in government service should hold themselves to much higher standards—as these schools have done for the children they educate.

Caroline Bermudez is a senior writer at Education Post and former reporter at Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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