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Commentary: Too much ambiguity in plan for LAUSD charters

Michael Janofsky | September 2, 2015

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Eli and Edythe Broad

Eli and Edythe Broad

Another charter war is brewing in LA Unified. But the early warning shots are taking aim at ambiguity, not facts.

The flashpoint was two sentences in an Aug. 7 story in the LA Times that described a meeting at which three major foundations discussed plans to expand the number of charter schools in the district. The participants are the usual bete noirs of teacher unions for their roles in the education reform movement — the Broad, Walton Family and W.M. Keck foundations,

Here is what the story said:

“One person who attended a meeting said the goal was to enroll in charter schools half of all Los Angeles students over the next eight years. Another said there was discussion of an option that involved enrolling 50% of students currently at schools with low test scores.”

The story did not discern which observation hewed closer to the truth, leaving the impression that an all-out assault (the first sentence) was entirely possible, and maybe it is.

The LA teachers union, UTLA, certainly thinks so. It has repeated the assertion in a recent wave of material from leadership to rally the troops in the name of unity and union survival.

In an email to members, UTLA referred to “Broad the Billionaire” (Eli Broad), saying, “He is attacking public education with the likes of John Deasy and has plans to take 50% of students out of LAUSD and put them in unregulated, non-union charters. Deasy works for the Broad Foundation and is leading Broad’s attack on LAUSD.”

The union went on to say, “If they were able to pull off their plan, it would be devastating for LAUSD students, educators and public education as a whole. It would be disastrous for our highest needs students, because unregulated charters have a history of not serving those students, and a history of draining funding from the public district that does serve them.

“Removing 50% of our students could mean 50% of our jobs would be cut, and funding cuts would be used to justify future cuts in health benefits.” 

UTLA also produced a flyer that makes the same points.

All that is understandable. UTLA, and its national affiliates, the NEA and AFT, are threatened when charter schools open with non-unionized teachers.

But what if the union response is based on incorrect information, which apparently is the case.

The problem here is that no one from from the foundations has stepped forward to define the goal. There’s a huge difference between enrolling 50 percent of all LA Unified schools and enrolling 50 percent of students at failing LA Unified schools — or maybe the goal is something different altogether.

A spokeswoman for the Broad Foundation told LA School Report last week that plans haven’t evolved that far. She did go so far to say that the target would more likely be kids at failing schools rather than at all schools. But she wasn’t certain about that, either, and couldn’t offer anything more.

So what we’re left with is a huge public disservice — by the LA Times for leaving the issue hanging without context but more by the foundations for imprecise leaks, on-going ambiguity and silence; and by UTLA for assuming the worst without recognizing the uncertainty of it all.

It is hard to blame UTLA for its response. Now that the teachers have a new contract that sets salaries higher than before, they are turning to other priorities, a list of issues that includes the threat of union dilution through an increase in the number of non-unionized charter schools.

This is a real problem for UTLA, which is losing membership by retirements and shrinking student enrollment in LA Unified. Fewer teachers reduces the union’s political power and influence, at Beaudry and in Sacramento. It also means less money through union dues, which is one reason the leadership is proposing to increase dues for the first time in 45 years.

One way for UTLA to mitigate the coming expansion, if it actually materializes, it to use new charters as new opportunities for unionization. UTLA is moving forward with such efforts with the Alliance Charter schools; the foundations’ plan would provide other opportunities.

But that’s not really the point here. Responsible parties have an obligation to help the public understand what the plans are — and aren’t — and what the consequences may be for LA Unified students and teachers. 

What we have so far is ambiguity on one side and a hasty response on the other. Neither is especially helpful. 

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