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Los Angeles Unified School District

Can’t We Just Agree That Great Schools Are Great for Students?

A few weeks ago, a story broke in the Los Angeles Times about a plan to expand access to public charter schools throughout the city. The Broad Foundation is considering investing $490 million over the next several years to add up to 260 new charter schools, serving as many as 130,000 students. It’s an interesting idea, and in a city where less than one in five fourth- and eighth-graders are proficient in reading according to the National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, you would think that any effort to increase educational opportunities would be welcome. Or not. Antonia Hernandez, president of the California Community Foundation, remarked, “My biggest concern is that adults will take sides, not thinking about the students.” She was right to be concerned—that’s exactly what is happening. The story drew immediate backlash from critics of education reform and charter schools. The Los Angeles teachers union protested at the opening of the Broad Art Museum. Then, demonstrating a total lack of leadership, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted a talking point taken straight from focus groups: https://twitter.com/rweingarten/status/646399108916322304

So, What’s the Plan?

How is replicating and expanding access to successful charter schools in Los Angeles not “actually helping kids”? Has she seen the results the city’s charter schools are getting? Is Weingarten, or anyone else, familiar with a reform effort going on in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that is getting better results for disadvantaged kids than the charter sector? LAUSD school board president Steve Zimmer said the plan was “a strategy to bring down LAUSD that leaves 250,000 kids vulnerable to damage.” Really? What about the damage being done to students in LAUSD who aren’t able to read or do math and are not on track to attend college? What is the board president’s plan for those children? And how does it match up against a proposal to rapidly expand access to high-quality schools? Isn’t that the debate we should be having?

The Systems Working...Just Not for Kids

These distractors don’t want to have that debate, however. They don’t want to talk about whether the plan is focused on all charter schools, or instead creating more of the kind of schools, particularly those serving high percentages of low-income Hispanic students, that produce significantly greater gains for students than their peers in traditional public schools. They certainly don’t want to talk about why, according to a recent poll, voters in Los Angeles might overwhelmingly support the expansion of charter schools, or how those same voters favor increased investment in successful district programs as well. I have to believe that it’s not because these critics do not have a strategy with respect to public schools. But this isn’t about kids. It’s about adults. D istraction is the strategy. Any conversation that raises questions about why some schools do well by students while others do not is a problem for adults in an establishment bent on maintaining a system that is under their control. Of course, this kind of redirection is  not just a problem in Los Angeles. But it needs to end. The overwhelming majority of poor kids and kids of color in this country do not get to attend high-achieving schools. And at a time in which the  gap in opportunity between wealthy and poor children is growing, does it make any sense at all to rail against expanding better opportunities for the children getting the short shrift? If helping kids is truly the goal, then whether schools are getting results for students should be the main criteria by which they are judged. Great schools, regardless of how they are governed, should be embraced. Instead, baseless attacks on charter schools only reflect the mistaken priorities of self-interest and entitlement, as if the only kids who are worthy of investment, public or private, are those who choose to attend the schools predominantly controlled by certain interests. Sure, everyone is entitled to his or her politics and to preservation of their interests. It’s just a shame when they’re not upfront about when those conflict with the interests of kids.  
Eric Lerum has been working on public education issues for over a decade. Most recently, he led the policy efforts at StudentsFirst as the vice president of national policy.
Eric Lerum is the vice president of growth and strategy for America Succeeds, where he leads the organization’s efforts to amplify the business leader voice in support of improving public education. Eric has over a decade of experience in strategic planning, partnership development, and advising state and local policymakers regarding public education issues. Most recently Lerum led the policy ...

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