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Commentary: Does LAUSD want to protect children or a bloated bureaucracy?

Guest contributor | May 16, 2016

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LA Unified school board members Monica Garcia and Scott Schmerelson

By Peter Cunningham

Across America, parents are demanding more and better educational options for their children while teachers unions and bureaucrats desperately fight to retain their monopoly over public school students.

The latest front in the war against charter schools is in Los Angeles, where a study funded by United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) tallied up the financial impact of the district’s 221 charter schools.

The union’s analysis concluded that charter schools cost the district more than half a billion dollars—but nearly all of it was the per-pupil money that followed 100,000 students to their chosen independent charter school.

Notably, the analysis did not include the 53 unionized charter schools in Los Angeles, suggesting that the real motivation behind the study is to protect unionized jobs, at the expense of the education of the children of Los Angeles. UTLA has embraced the findings of the study and is urging the school board to consider the financial impact on the district before granting any more non-union charters.

The essential problem with the UTLA study is that it is designed to bolster a false argument—that charter schools are siphoning money from traditional public schools. Charter schools are public schools, serving the same students with the same tax dollars and they are held accountable to the same—and often tougher—performance standards. Arguing that public charter schools take money from traditional public schools is like arguing that a younger child deprives an older child of parental attention.

• Read more: Contrary to UTLA study, LAUSD makes money from charters

In Los Angeles, parents aren’t interested in protecting a bloated bureaucracy or preserving a steady flow of union dues. They want schools that prepare their children for success, and they are voting with their feet. LA Unified has more charter students than any other district in the country, making up 16 percent of the district enrollment. Over the last decade, the number of LA charter schools has more than tripled.

The same holds true for parents nationwide. A 2015 poll of 1,000 public school parents conducted by Education Post found that 65 percent agreed that, “Public charter schools offer parents in low-income communities options for quality schools that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.”

Only 35 percent of parents agreed with the union’s argument that, “Public charter schools take resources and high achieving students away from traditional public schools.” The pro-charter numbers were even higher among African-American and Latino families, who overwhelmingly make up the Los Angeles student population.

Meanwhile, the parents of nearly 10 million school children across America have opted out of the traditional public school system in favor of private schools, charter schools or homeschooling.

The fact is, after decades of monopoly control of public schools, teachers unions and their enabling bureaucracies are facing an existential crisis. As kids leave the system so does the money, along with the union dues. Today, charter schools enroll more than 30 percent of the kids in 14 cities in America and more than 10 percent in more than 160 districts.

The best of them are getting eye-popping results and closing achievement gaps as well as the highest-performing suburban schools. They are also graduating students from high school and enrolling them in college at much higher rates than traditional urban public schools.

At the same time, more than 30 states have passed laws authorizing the use of public dollars in private schools either through vouchers or education savings accounts, so the days of monopoly are coming to an end.

There’s a reason why every single Democratic and Republican candidate for president in the last 25 years supports public charter schools. Strong charter schools dispel the myth that poor kids can’t achieve at high levels.

Parents are fed up with divisive arguments like the ones advanced by this study. They want results and they want their kids to be prepared to compete in the new economy.

Apparently teachers do as well. A 2014 Education Next poll found that 34 percent of teachers chose charters, private schools or home-schooling for their own children—a higher percentage than the general public as a whole.

When even teachers are rejecting the schools that their own unions seek to protect from choice, you have to wonder what is going on. One can only imagine how many inner-city teachers choose to live outside the communities where they teach to access better public schools for their own kids.

If teachers unions really want to protect their unionized jobs, their best strategy is to help do a better job educating kids and trust that parents will find their way back to the traditional public schools they are roundly rejecting.

Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit communications organization supporting efforts to improve public education. He recently served as Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama Administration’s first term.

This article was published in partnership with Education Post.

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