By now, it should be apparent that charter schools have been the spark to the education reform flame in the Los Angeles Unified School District. At first, applicants hoping to open publicly funded but independently operated charter schools had to fight for every new campus, opposed by school board members who were strong union allies. But as charters showed remarkable progress with disadvantaged and minority students who had been failing in regular public schools, appreciation for them increased. New laws limited the grounds on which the school board could reject charter applications, and the election of a more reform-oriented board brought the number of students attending charter schools to nearly 100,000, about twice as many as in the New York City school system.
Yet misguided attacks on charter schools still occur, most recently when L.A. Unified school board member Steve Zimmer introduced a resolution to temporarily halt the approval of new charters. The resolution was softened, but eventually, and rightly, it was rejected by the board.
During that meeting, Bennett Kayser, probably the board's staunchest ally of the teachers union, introduced a separate resolution to prevent board members from voting on any business having to do with a charter school if they had received a campaign contribution within the last six months from the charter organization involved. That might contribute to good-government practices in the district, but only if there were similar rules regarding campaign contributions from the unions, which have been foes of the charter movement and attempted to influence board decisions on a far wider range of issues.
Zimmer's resolution, which sought numerous changes in the way the district treats charter schools, was even more troubling, especially its provision to impose a moratorium on new charter applications while the district studied the situation. To start with, the school district cannot unilaterally impose such a moratorium, temporary or otherwise; there are state laws prohibiting that. And there is no valid reason to do so. Eventually, the proposal's language was revised to ask charter organizations to voluntarily stop submitting applications, which is hardly more acceptable. It would have sent a message that applications were unwelcome.
Other provisions would have called on the district to examine such issues as whether charter schools were engaging in fair labor practices, which is not really the district's business. Charter schools have broad authority over how they conduct themselves, including how they pay, hire and fire teachers, as long as they improve student achievement. The district's unions obviously dislike the weaker job protections at charter schools, which generally do not offer tenure, but those protections, which can work against the interests of students, were among the reasons for starting charter schools in the first place.
Charter schools deserve credit for changing the discussion in Los Angeles about poor and minority students. No longer is it acceptable to assume that students from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot be high achievers. The new ideas that charter schools brought into the educational mix, and the competition they posed in attracting students, played a significant role in the improvement of L.A. Unified's traditional public schools.
No one should deny that some of Zimmer's concerns about charter schools are justified. Many of L.A. Unified's charters are strong performers, but some aren't very good. In general, the schools have not enrolled a fair share of special-education students. Some parents have complained that their children who did poorly in charters were "counseled out" — or simply thrown out — by administrators who suggested they return to traditional public schools. That helped the charters' test scores look better, but it didn't help struggling students. The district has done too little to investigate such practices; it also should conduct a meaningful examination of charter high schools' four-year graduation rates, which aren't always impressive. And the school board has at times been too willing to renew the charters of schools with subpar test scores.
Zimmer's attack on charters was frustrating not only because it went to unacceptable and possibly illegal lengths but because a moment for serious discussion was lost, during which the district could have made progress toward ensuring that all charter schools live up to their promises.