It’s a confusing time to be a charter school teacher in Los Angeles.
Usually, I consider myself to have everything in common with my husband and friends who teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District. We put in the same long hours, confront the same piles of ungraded papers and share similar worries and hopes for our students.
But the teachers’ strike that ended Tuesday exposed a long-simmering rift between charter and district schools, and it made me confront my own role in the problems we face in Los Angeles education.
The teachers and their union made clear during the negotiations that they believe schools like mine pose an existential crisis to schools like theirs. More than 100,000 children living within district boundaries now attend charters, and the money the state provides for their education has followed them out of LAUSD schools. Moreover, the teachers pointed out, charters tend to pick off the students with more involved parents, leaving public schools with a higher percentage of tougher cases and less funding and space.
I think the striking teachers raised valid concerns – including about charters. But we need to figure out how to address the issues as allies, not enemies.
We need to figure out how to address the issues as allies, not enemies.
I love my school, my colleagues and my students fiercely, and I’m proud of what we’ve built. We have been able to reimagine our curriculum to support our many immigrant students. We have instituted co-teaching partnerships that we think better serve our students with special needs. We have implemented restorative justice and focused on teacher and student wellness.
It’s hard to think of any of that as a problem or that my school should be dismantled. The community we have is worth protecting.
Early charter schools in Los Angeles were approved at a time when the district was bursting at the seams, and the new schools served as a pressure valve for a struggling, overcrowded district. That’s no longer the case, however. The number of K-12 students in the area LAUSD serves is declining as families are priced out of the city, yet new charters are still being approved, as mandated by state law.
I believe in my charter school, but I don’t believe that the charter industry’s mission to increase its share of the educational marketplace in Los Angeles can solve the problems we all face educating children. In fact, the strike has made me consider how charter school expansion is harming the city. As more money is invested in new ideas and new campuses, fewer resources and students are left for the many great programs still trying to gain their footing in our current district and charter schools.
One thing to come out of the strike negotiations was that the school board will vote on a resolution asking the state to establish a charter school cap and the governor to appoint a committee on charter schools. Those things would be a start, and every school board member should strongly support them.
Everyone loses when district and charter schools wage an ugly competition for students and dollars. Already, schools have found that losing a few students or missing enrollment targets can mean no volleyball team, or the loss of a teacher. Those losses in turn encourage flight from a school.
At the root of charter expansion is the belief that the right group of people working together, without being shackled by the district, can fix education. But that so misidentifies the problem.
The real problem is ever-shrinking resources being thrown at kids with ever-growing needs, and that’s a problem facing every teacher in Los Angeles. Many students, whether they attend charters or district schools, are living with poverty, instability and trauma. We can’t hope to offer such students what they need and deserve when we are stuck in a fight over too-scarce resources.
Our schools, charter or district, won’t thrive until we collaborate on changing that.
We are a long way from a system in which we are deeply invested in the success of every school and every student in L.A., but we must make that the mission. We must find a way to stabilize school enrollment, fairly distribute resources and high-need students, and ensure that the charter and district schools currently serving our students get the funding and support needed to offer every single student a safe, caring and inspiring learning environment. These goals should be Los Angeles and Sacramento’s top priorities.
Charters face many of the same challenges the district does, and collaboration can better us all. The district and the charters within its boundaries alike need to be more democratic, giving power to parents, teachers and other stakeholders. They need to be far more transparent. And more charter teachers should seriously consider unionizing.
No one would argue that L.A. schools are perfect, and affluent parents across the city have voted with their feet, fleeing the district for private schools or helping to form new charters. Everyone understands the desire to do right by our children. But I would urge Angelenos considering their education options to hold this thought: The schools you judge not good enough for your children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews aren’t good enough for any child.
Riley McDonald Vaca is a teacher at Camino Nuevo High School and an LAUSD parent. Her views do not represent those of her school‘s management.