L.A. city councilman Richard Alarcón's plan to have Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa take over the Los Angeles Unified School district by using California's notoriously easy charter school route is a brilliant idea that just won't work. It's another noble effort easily sold to a gullible public but fraught with danger to the schools, the parents and the city.
As usual with charter schools, it offers less bureaucracy, more responsibility and less red tape. Happy school kids trudge off to smaller classrooms where eager teachers are ready to pitch in and help Superintendent Villaraigosa achieve his goal of improving the dismal performance of existing schools.
But one recalls when, as a young assistant Navy secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to tame the naval bureaucracy only to admit defeat by likening the Navy to a huge gas bag where you push in one side only to have it bulge out the other.
The mayor currently is working within the system to bring about a change in the make-up of the current school board, which many people seem to think has demonstrated an incapacity to govern the district. Instead of setting policy and establishing goals, the district has burdened itself with trying to micro-manage everything.
The trouble with Alarcón's charter school solution is that charters have a tendency to pick and choose motivated students and parents, and have not been required to accept everyone who applies. They are unprepared to educate all students -- the good, bad and indifferent.
Then there is the question of teachers. The goal in education is finding and motivating so-called "good teachers." Unfortunately, identifying them is difficult. As in every organization that deals with people there are some employees who are better at their tasks than others and who actually possess those qualities of leadership, compassion and skill that make them stand out.
There are many such teachers in the LAUSD, just as there are others who are not so good but who do a workmanlike though not inspiring job. Whether the charter school system would do any better than the LAUSD is doubtful, especially when it would be necessary because of sheer size to transfer all teachers to the new program.
And what of the infrastructure, the hundreds of administrative personnel, the staff people who do the myriad jobs to keep the schools open and running, feeding the students, protecting and nurturing them? These too would have to be transferred, bringing with them their bureaucratic habits that are so ingrained in the system.
The mayor is already burdened with the task of running the city and looking after its many problems -- traffic, crime, gangs, the homeless, culture and the arts, parks and recreation (including a troublesome zoo). Not to overlook public works, potholes, one-way streets, landfills, the airport, harbor, mass transit and international relations ... all with a city council ready to pounce. This poor man has already bitten off more than he can chew. He has no time to spend on matters of educational substance.
No, the citizens of Los Angeles should let well enough alone and seek by other means to reform the schools, especially by demanding a less political school board,
But at the head of the list of things to do, the district needs a top-level citizen's committee, similar to the state's Little Hoover Commission, to review and reform the system from top to bottom. A just-released audit shows a school system in such chaos that the charter juggernaut and a little tinkering by the mayor cannot correct.
Councilman Alarcón's plan belongs in the circular file, along with the whole concept of charter schools.
Walter P. Coombs is professor emeritus of social sciences at Cal Poly Pomona, and Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.
Look at the Indianapolis model
Contrary to Walter and Ralph's claims, Richard Alarcón's plan to have Mayor Villaraigosa and the city council run charter schools is a sound plan with a very successful precedent in Indianapolis. Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat, has authorized 16 charter schools in Indianapolis since 2002, serving 4,000 children.
Ralph and Walter are incorrect that charter schools cherry-pick students. The number of charter schools nationwide grew by 11% in 2006, serving a student body that is on average 53% minority and 54% low-income, according to the 2007 Annual Survey of America's Charter Schools, released last week by the Center for Education Reform.
In Indianapolis, charters have enrolled some of the most disadvantaged students in the city. These students enrolled in charters are far behind their peers in district-run public schools. On average 22% of new charter students passed the state assessment in reading and math, compared with 44% of students in the Indianapolis school district. Yet, these same students have made strong gains in charter schools over time. On average, charter schools have improved pass rates on the Indiana state assessment by 22 points between 2003 and 2005.
Mayor Villaraigosa and the city council do not need to reinvent the wheel when developing a system for highly accountable charters in Los Angeles. They can follow Mayor Peterson's model, which received Harvard's Innovation in American Government award in 2006 for its transparency and accountability.
Mayor Peterson has developed clear accountability mechanisms that ensure the success of charter schools, and that could easily be replicated by the city of Los Angeles and our mayor.
Mayor Peterson has partnered with some of the city's most prominent community organizations. He created the SEED Initiative, which recruits charter applicants with proven school models. He has an extremely rigorous application process with very high standards. He also has a comprehensive accountability package that continuously holds charter schools accountable.
In addition, now that the California Charter Schools Association has developed a new accreditation process designed to bring a greater level of transparency and credibility to California charters, the city and the mayor's office have another guidebook to design their accountability standards. To date the California Charter Association has accredited 39 charter schools in the state.
Los Angeles is well-suited to replicate Indianapolis's charter program. We already have a robust and successful charter movement willing to partner with the city and the mayor. Los Angeles charters are having the most success with low-income and minority children. For example, at Green Dot's Animo Leadership Academy, Hispanic students outscore LAUSD's Hispanic children by 102 points, and economically disadvantaged students outscore LAUSD students by almost 100 points on the 2006 Academic Performance Index (API). Green Dot replicates these scores at every school for every sub-group of disadvantaged children.
There are many other individual and charter groups that have similar high scores with disadvantaged children. Overall, in Los Angeles the median 2006 API score for middle schools was 637 compared with 749 for charter middle schools, and 620 for LAUSD high schools compared with 699 for charter high schools.
As for the teachers and school administrators, evidence from Los Angeles charter schools demonstrates that these folks are more than willing to join the charter movement in large numbers. The number one complaint of teachers in a recent survey on why teachers leave the teaching profession was that their job was too bureaucratic. The claim that administrators would bring their "bureaucratic ways" to charter schools just will not happen. Places like New Orleans, Detroit, and Washington DC, where between 20% and 70% of all children are enrolled in charters, have made good use of the existing school employees.
However, the bottom line is that as students move to charters, bureaucratic bloat will shrink -- a good thing for kids and teachers. Rather than the circular file, Richard Alarcón's plan for mayor-authorized charters should be marked "urgent." It has the best chance of success, and would have the most impact on school performance in the LAUSD. Mayor Villaraigosa should move quickly to partner with the current high-performing charters in Los Angeles and invite new charters to help Los Angeles kids.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.