The Los Angeles Unified School District has at most a year to replace Ramon C. Cortines as superintendent. This is a crucial time for the district, which has weathered many controversies in the last decade. It is also a crucial time for American public education, which has been under assault for 30 years.
What should the next superintendent bring to the job? Start with the vision and skills to revive public confidence in Los Angeles’ public schools. The ideal superintendent would have the courage, and the support of the board, to resist those who seek to undermine and privatize public schools.
I write as a historian who has studied American education for almost 50 years. There has never before been a time such as now, when the very survival of public education is at risk. A powerful coalition of billionaires, libertarians and religious zealots has converged to challenge the legitimacy of public education in Los Angeles and across the nation.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger was California’s governor, he appointed a majority of charter school advocates to the state school board, even though at the time only 5% of the state’s children attended these privately managed schools. The Legislature and the state board strongly supported the creation of more charter schools, and the California Charter Schools Assn. became a major player in Sacramento, pushing pro-charter policies.
During the last school year, of LAUSD’s nearly 644,000 students, 138,672 attended 264 charter schools, more than any other city in the nation. Some charters are good schools, but what is the value of having two publicly funded school systems? In general, charter schools operate with minimal oversight, receiving public funds but not necessarily acting like public schools.
Even in California, where charters by law are supposed to accept all comers, many find loopholes that allow them to shape their student bodies in a way true public schools cannot. They boast about their good test scores, but it is easier to get high scores when you’re not necessarily educating all comers.
Charter schools have plenty of influential cheerleaders, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and businessmen/philanthropists Eli Broad and Bill Gates, and a host of high-profile conservative governors (and presidential candidates) such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
There needs to be a countervailing force in Los Angeles that bolsters the core American tradition of public education: schools that are controlled not by private, unaccountable boards but by the public, through elections. LAUSD needs a superintendent who will scrutinize charter schools for their use of public funds and subject them to regular public audits. It needs a superintendent willing to fight to impose a moratorium on new charters to stop the flow of funds and students from public schools.
The next superintendent must double down on LAUSD’s classroom deficits. First, he or she should go to the mat for the funding to reduce class sizes, which is especially important for children who are struggling with their studies. The next superintendent must ensure that every school has a full and rich curriculum: history, geography, civics, the arts, science, foreign languages and physical education, as well as reading and math. Los Angeles has one of the most vibrant arts communities in the world, yet many of its public schools have lost their arts teachers. This is shameful.
The new superintendent must also work to reduce the importance of federally driven standardized testing. California administers new Common Core tests although it is not yet using the results to rate students and teachers. Several other states have rejected the new exams because they test students on material they were never taught and set the passing standard at an unrealistic level, sometimes two grade levels above where the children are.
But all children — especially poor children and English learners — aren’t going to reach a standard that is arbitrarily rigorous. Nor does it encourage or motivate students to label them as failures beginning in third grade. After 13 years of No Child Left Behind, we’ve learned that more testing doesn’t improve educational outcomes. The new LAUSD superintendent should advocate for minimal state standardized testing, for reasonable passing standards and for teacher-made tests instead.
Finally, the next LAUSD superintendent must create an atmosphere of respect for the district’s teachers, who all too often are expected to work without adequate resources or support. Teachers should be treated as professionals, not harassed, bullied or threatened. To be sure, bad teachers should not be protected; they should be removed, with due process.
Contrary to the popular myth that traditional public schools are failing, students in affluent districts nationally do very well indeed. What works is schools that are well resourced, have strong family support and hold their teachers in high esteem. That is what Los Angeles should be trying to replicate in all of its schools, making sure the neediest students get the human and financial resources to succeed.
We cannot afford to write off the guarantee of a good public education for all. Countries that do the best job at educating their citizens — Finland, Korea, Japan, Singapore and Canada — do it with strong and equitable public school systems, not charter schools or private school vouchers. LAUSD needs a leader who believes in restoring and strengthening public education, which society counts on to develop citizens with the talent, skills and knowledge to sustain our democracy.
Diane Ravitch is the author of, most recently, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”