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A Half-Charter School District for L.A.?

eye on the news

A Half-Charter School District for L.A.?

Eli Broad has a plan to shake up America’s second-largest school district. December 30, 2015

Eli Broad made his fortune in construction and real estate. But he’s building a legacy as a philanthropist and an education reformer. In September, the Broad, a $140 million museum of contemporary art, opened in downtown Los Angeles at the corner of a revitalizing Grand Avenue and 2nd Street, across from the Walt Disney Concert Hall. That same month, the Los Angeles Times published a leaked memo detailing Broad’s proposal to revitalize L.A.’s sclerotic public school system. Working under the auspices of his family foundation, Broad would gather some of the biggest names in private philanthropy—Gates, Walton, Ahmanson, Bloomberg, Annenberg, and Hewlett, as well as David Geffen, Kirk Kerkorian, and Elon Musk—to open 260 new charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District over an eight-year period, with an enrollment goal of at least 130,000 students. The memo discusses how to raise $490 million to pay for the effort, which includes recruiting teachers, acquiring real estate, providing outreach to parents, and navigating political battles. If the octogenarian Broad succeeds, half of L.A. Unified’s schools would be charters by the mid-2020s.

Naturally, L.A.’s education establishment detests the idea. The LAUSD board’s president, Steve Zimmer, denounced Broad’s plan as “a strategy to bring down LAUSD.” In November, board member Scott Schmerelson pushed a resolution announcing the board’s opposition to the Broad Foundation’s plan by name. Later, Schmerelson changed the language to say the board opposed any “external initiatives that seek to reduce public education to an educational marketplace and our children to market shares while not investing in District-wide programs and strategies that benefit every student.” As an L.A. Times editorial pointed out, by that standard, “the board would have to oppose many of its own programs—magnet schools, programs to teach students fluency in English and alternative schools for students with chronic behavioral problems.” (In response, Broad’s new educational nonprofit expanded its proposal to support traditional public schools, including pilots, magnets, and other high-performing schools that serve low-income children.)

Former LAUSD superintendent Ramon C. Cortines was more charitable. At a forum with Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez earlier this month, Cortines didn’t ascribe ill motives to Broad, but rather suggested the billionaire was ill advised. “I think somebody brought him an elixir without having it be tested to see if it will really do what it is promised to do,” he said. But United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl was predictably unsparing in his vitriol. “Billionaires should not be running public education,” he said. The union boss also claimed that charter schools are unregulated and “deregulation doesn’t work.” Not to be outdone, retired kindergarten teacher Cheryl Ortega groused, “Charter schools are destroying public education.”

Broad’s plan is ambitious, to be sure. In addition to fighting the school board and union, Broad and his foundation allies would need considerable community support to succeed. Charters already make up a sizable portion of schools in the district: nearly a quarter of LAUSD students—about 150,866 students—are enrolled in 282 charter schools from San Pedro to the San Fernando Valley. Another 40,000 students languish on waiting lists. The demand is there; it’s the supply that’s lacking, though procuring facilities for 260 new schools would take some doing.

California’s 1992 charter school law gives local districts the power to approve or deny charter applications, though applications cannot be denied without good reason, such as questionable management or shady finances. However, the district doesn’t have the last word. Charter applicants have the option to appeal first to the county board of education, and then to the state board of education, if necessary.

A closer look at many of the antagonists’ complaints reveals less anger about billionaires’ meddling in education than envy that Broad’s largess doesn't extend to traditional public schools. But the schools already receive plenty of money. Official per-pupil spending in Los Angeles is $13,490, which is greater than the national average and doesn’t include expenses such as the cost of building and maintaining schools, interest on various payments, bonds, and so forth. When those expenditures get added in, per-pupil spending comes to about $30,000 per year. If the new California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance (CAASPP) scores are any indication, the money is not being well-spent. Only a third of the city’s students performed at grade level in English, while about a quarter performed at grade level or better in math. The district’s charter school students far outpaced their peers in traditional schools.

Don’t believe the anti-reform hype about lax regulation and looming public school destruction, either. Charter schools are public schools, funded by tax dollars and subject to regulation—just not to the same extent as traditional public schools, which are strangled by bulky union contracts that put seniority ahead of competence. Broad’s plan anticipates that 5,000 union members could be put out of work and replaced with staff hired through Teach For America, TNTP (formerly the New Teacher Project), and other groups that work with young instructors. The proposal makes no mention of recruiting teachers from within L.A. Unified.

Clearly, hundreds of new charter schools would find it difficult to fill their ranks with newbies. And therein lies an important but unstated aspect of the Broad plan. Those rehired from the current crop of experienced teachers would be the good and even great ones working now because they are qualified, not because they are protected by the state’s seniority statute. Needless to say, Caputo-Pearl has a different take. “The charters are specifically looking for educators who have not had the experience of being in a union,” he said, “which means that, by and large, they’re looking for teachers who may find it more challenging to raise their voice about curriculum or school conditions.” That’s absurd, of course. Where is it written that that only unionized teachers speak up about “curriculum and school conditions”?

Some of the naysayers claim that a half-charter district would leave too many children behind, but other cities’ experience suggests otherwise. Washington, D.C., and Detroit have moved in recent years to a 50 percent charter model. New Orleans may offer the best evidence of how charter schools can serve a low-income and underprivileged population. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Crescent City in 2005, a much more vibrant charter system emerged in the aftermath. Today, 92 percent of the city’s students are enrolled in a charter school. Ten years ago, 62 percent of schools in Orleans Parish were failing. Today, just 7 percent of schools are failing. During the same period, the portion of city schools with students performing at or above grade level rose from 35 percent to 62 percent. As it happens, Paul Pastorek, the former superintendent of public education in Louisiana who helped oversee the turnaround, has been appointed to lead Broad’s effort in L.A.

Philanthropy has the power to transform institutions for the better. More charters in Los Angeles would certainly disrupt the dismal status quo—likely to the advantage of good teachers, their students, and taxpayers. Opponents see Broad’s proposal as a way of “bringing down LAUSD,” but building up alternatives to a dysfunctional system may be exactly what L.A.’s children need.

Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

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