Editorial: The thorny issue lurking behind the teachers’ strike: charter schools

Teachers and supporters make their way through downtown Los Angeles on the second day of the teachers' strike on Jan. 15.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The strike talk was mostly about new hiring, smaller class sizes and salary increases. But lurking just below the surface during the teacher walkout in the Los Angeles Unified School District was another issue: charter schools, which many teachers (and their union) fear and loathe, seeing them as an existential threat to traditional public schools.

Indeed, one of the less-noticed provisions of the agreement to end the strike was that the school board would call for a statewide reexamination of the role and effect of charters, and that it would consider asking the state for a moratorium on any new ones. Board member Richard Vladovic said he will introduce a resolution on those subjects on Tuesday.

The state’s law authorizing the creation of charter schools has been around since 1992 and legislators have made it easier during the ensuing years for such schools to open. In L.A. Unified, their growth has been explosive: The district now has 277 charters, most of them independently run, though they receive public funding. Most are non-union. They enroll close to 140,000 students — about one in five in the district. Their growth is responsible for about half of the declining enrollment in traditional public schools that has sapped the district’s finances over the last 15 years.


Charter schools should operate on a level playing field, and they should supplement, not supplant or harm, the larger school system.

So yes, it’s time for a thorough state assessment of charter schools, including how successful they’ve been and what their impact has been on traditional public schools. The state has been generally lackadaisical about regulating charter schools and has altogether ignored the ways in which the budgets of school districts may have been harmed. There has also been tension between charters and traditional schools when they have been required to “co-locate” on a single campus.

Charter schools were originally intended to be “laboratories of innovation,” showing district-run schools new ways to provide more successful educational experiences, especially for low-income students of color. They provided an option for parents whose children were stuck in truly awful schools. No matter what you may have heard, L.A. schools were not doing fine before charter schools came on the scene. There were schools where some of the teachers read newspapers in the back of the classroom while showing their students Disney videos on a regular basis. Some high schools didn’t even offer the courses required to apply to one of the state’s four-year colleges. There were math and science classes taught by a series of rotating substitutes who had no expertise in the subjects. It’s not surprising that academic outcomes were shockingly bad.

Parents who couldn’t afford to move or pay for a private school were stuck. School administrators too often brushed off their concerns. Charter schools gave these families their first chance to have a voice in their children’s education.

And in ways, the competition successfully prodded L.A. schools to improve. In response to the move of students to charters, for instance, the district started offering more high-achieving magnet schools to keep students within the district. As charter schools offered students a pathway to college, more district schools started doing the same. The district began listening to parents more.

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Yet charter schools haven’t always lived up to their promise. Some manipulated the system to bring in students more likely to succeed. It took investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union to discover that dozens of charter schools were requiring parents to volunteer significant time to the school, a deterrent to low-income families that couldn’t spare that kind of time. Extensive applications, sometimes provided only in English, discouraged all but the savviest applicants and those with a commitment to their children’s education. Requirements for documents would have forced families to reveal their immigration status, discouraging them from applying as well. For a long time, charter schools weren’t educating their fair share of special-needs students; other requirements tended to screen out lower-performing students. Many of these problems appear to have been fixed or at least improved, so that charter schools are closer to taking all comers, but the fixes came only after a backlash.

Meanwhile, donations from generous charter-supporting benefactors created an unlevel playing field.

Studies on charter schools have shown mixed results, but one of the best surveys, produced by Stanford University, found that Los Angeles’ charter schools in general provide better outcomes than its traditional public schools.

We will always need our traditional public schools; they are — and should be — the mainstay of the public school system. Charter schools can close at any time (for instance if their private funding from Eli Broad or Bill Gates dries up), but traditional public schools always have to be here for students. Charter schools should operate on a level playing field, and they should supplement, not supplant or harm, the larger school system. The state must find the right balance; it cannot afford to have the backbone of a free and public education become a wan, depleted version of its former self.

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