Stop cheering on charter schools

It’s apparent from The Times editorial, “Hope for Locke High,” and two previous articles why this newspaper deserves its poor reputation among local educators and informed community members when it comes to public education. A runaway bureaucracy, top-down authoritarian school administrations and a decided lack of collaboration are the real issues. It’s too bad that they remain hidden behind The Times’ blame-the-bad-teacher cries and charter-school cheerleading.

Can we at least talk about the real problem, the state budget, for a moment? Because California is one of the largest economies in the world, it’s a crime that the state ranks among the lowest in per-pupil spending and has such large teacher-student ratios. It would make sense to give a much greater financial priority to public education. What we don’t spend on now, we will have to spend much more on later. Incarceration, healthcare and welfare already cost our society too much.

Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines (who really should be called the superintendent in light of the vacant leadership of David L. Brewer) was clear and correct in taking responsibility for the latest outburst of violence at Locke High School. The Los Angeles Unified School District has “abdicated [its] responsibility” for too many years at a host of schools in inner-city Los Angeles. Years of inexperienced or despotic administrators have helped drive excellent, experienced teachers away. A lack of true collaboration with teachers and parents, turning a blind eye to the collective bargaining agreement and ignoring student-centered reforms lowered morale. When teachers aren’t valued, they try to find places where they are.

Real help for these schools is not stalled by union contracts “larded with rigid work rules,” as The Times writes in its editorial. The main problem has always been not listening to the experts on education: the teachers. Most people would be shocked if they understood just how very little teachers, parents and students were respected, especially in the inner city. It’s a bloated bureaucracy far from the classroom that directs ill-conceived and failed reforms.

The No. 1 indicator for success in urban schools is teacher experience and retention of those experienced teachers. At Locke High next year, there will be many new teachers, the vast majority with little or no experience. Many will learn quickly. Many will not. The kids will certainly suffer while Green Dot works out this pesky little detail.

Most teachers I know are not “just marching toward retirement,” as Times columnist Sandy Banks recently suggested. Most teachers, young or experienced, have a “good heart” and “genuinely care about the students.” The issue really is LAUSD officials. Why do they reject teacher input and ignore student concerns? Why do they act like the boss instead of lending the kind of support they are supposed to? Schools and school districts don’t move forward without clear respect. And they most certainly don’t just give up on a school like they have Locke and give it away to educational profiteers.

Yes, there are “bad” teachers, but they are a small minority and certainly not what is holding back large-scale success for our schools. As far as it being “virtually impossible to fire apathetic employees,” that urban myth needs to be put to rest. As an experienced teacher, I know how easy it is to fire the nonpermanent teacher or to set up a permanent one for removal through unfounded accusations or with an outdated LAUSD evaluation system.

The well-funded movement to privatize education is in full swing with folks like The Times touting its agenda. The goal to privatize the last big enchilada of public money will leave us all much poorer in spirit and pocketbook. The goal has been to portray public education as a failure (particularly in the inner cities) and then to promote 100% charter schools as the answer. Far from being saviors, charters in fact drain public money. Clearly they represent a real danger to the historic democratic value that is public education.

Teachers and their unions have many great ideas and clear solutions for schools, even with a budget crisis. But many wealthy “philanthropists,” CEOs and newspapers would have us believe otherwise. I urge a balanced and equitable public discussion, not the one-sided charter-school campaign we’ve seen of late.

Mathew C. Taylor, the south area chairman for United Teachers Los Angeles, has taught English in Los Angeles schools for 23 years.

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