Schools aren't startups and kids aren't consumers

The Los Angeles Unified School District will wrestle with enormous challenges in the year ahead. It's on the brink of financial insolvency, enrollment is dropping, and its board is about to hire a new superintendent to fix these fiscal problems.

The new superintendent will face more than money issues, though. A philosophical controversy is also churning inside LAUSD: Should LAUSD become a competitive marketplace of schools, or grow as a democratic civic institution?

Looking back at the events of last fall, it's clear how high the stakes are in this debate.

In September, a proposal from Great Public Schools Now, an initiative led by billionaire Eli Broad, unleashed ferocious debate. Rife with business-speak, it suggested LAUSD could be fixed by attracting edupreneurs to launch 260 new charter schools that would capture 50% of the district's “market share” by 2023. Within weeks, battle lines were drawn. Rallying anti-charter-school activists, former school board president Jackie Goldberg declared “This is war!” On its website, the teacher's union posted “Hit the Road, Broad.”

Another coalition of local foundation leaders then weighed in with its own open letter in November and offered to mediate. Without taking sides, they cautioned that “intended reforms often fall short if they are done to communities rather than with communities.”

Then, in an abrupt turn, Great Public Schools Now announced in December that it would channel its resources not just into adding more charter schools, but into replicating models of success at traditional schools as well. It released a list of 49 schools that were models of success, 42 of them magnets and charter schools. Both types of schools rely on competitive admissions policies that are based on lotteries or criteria such as giftedness.

The list's near-exclusive focus on charters and magnets rather than neighborhood schools sends a powerful message about how these private reformers want Angelenos to think about education — as savvy consumers competing for scarce resources needed to help their children get ahead.

What does this process of edupreneurship and innovation look like on the ground? Magnets and charters use aggressive recruitment campaigns to draw families with more social capital away from their neighborhood public schools. The most vulnerable children, then, are left behind in quickly emptying buildings, which sit waiting for a Proposition 39 takeover bid, which allows new charter schools to open in the unused classroom space.

The charter school movement expects some of these new models to fail and others to flourish. Great Public Schools Now is planning for that future, advocating for an aggressive policy of closing schools that don't measure up.

Focusing on outcomes at all costs may seem reasonable because schools — and society — fail so many children. But the urgency school developers feel to fix this situation doesn't warrant the cavalier opening and closing of new models in response to market demand.

Education reformer John Dewey in 1902 wrote about public schools as the center of civic life — where people come together “by the promotion of common sympathies and a common understanding.” Successful reform requires honoring that social contract between a community and its neighborhood school. It requires dedicated educators, parents, students, and community partners committed for the long haul. Today, however, this deeply democratic way of thinking about schools is locked in competition with the cult of innovation and plug-and-play culture that drives markets.

There are other possibilities. For example, five of the seven “traditional” schools that Great Public Schools Now identified as models of success belong to the Pilot School movement, teacher-led alternatives to charters that enroll neighborhood students. Given autonomy and room to experiment in exchange for heightened accountability, Pilot Schools partner with the teachers' union and community to ensure reform is equitable and locally-rooted as well as innovative and results-oriented.

My point is not that one method of reform trumps all others. Rather, it's that to ensure high-quality schools for all children requires recognizing that public education is both an individual good that helps people get ahead — “the great equalizer,” as Horace Mann put it in 1848 — and a collective good that defines how we together determine our shared fate.

Edupreneurship is designed to unleash creative energy into conservative school systems and disrupt longstanding patterns of underachievement. But if that comes at the expense of our common good, it threatens the very foundation of public schooling.

Karen Hunter Quartz is the director of research at the UCLA Community School, a K-12 university-supported neighborhood public school in Pico Union/Koreatown.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 11, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Don't fall for `edu-preneurship' - We shouldn't think of students as savvy consumers competing for scarce resources." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe