LAUSD Magnet Parent and Former Teacher: Union’s Anti-Charter, Us-Versus-Them Mentality Won’t Help Kids

By Michael Sweeney

LAUSD magnet parent Michael Sweeney with his former students when he was a classroom teacher at a charter school

LAUSD magnet parent Michael Sweeney with his former students when he was a classroom teacher at a charter school

“The charter school situation is a mess…self-serving individuals finance policies that don’t serve our children in the long run…It isn’t just about protecting your charter school, at least not if you care about other peoples’ children…I sure hope charter school parents will march and support UTLA…”

I came across that posting on social media the other night, and after my eyes were done rolling back to their proper place, I collected my thoughts. My first impression was that it seemed an awfully big ask. How could charter parents wholeheartedly support a union that actively seeks to shut down their children’s schools, habitually rallies against and creates a hostile environment for any co-location efforts and continually vilifies them with half-truths, untruths and divisive rhetoric at every turn? After being painted as the bad guy for so long, even in these very same strike negotiations, how is turning around and asking those same families for help not supposed to feel like a slap in the face? Isn’t it a bit like the photo negative of the old adage about biting the hand that feeds you…perhaps, in this case, feeding the mouth that bites you?

But as I thought more about it, it also occurred to me that maybe this could be an opportunity. At some point, if we are ever to get to the perfect world of collaboration and mutually beneficial relationships between all types of schools, particularly traditional public and charter, someone needs to be the proverbial bigger person and start extending some olive branches. Maybe somewhere in this ongoing strike, there could be a chance to foster some goodwill between the two sides. Of course, it would have to come with some assurances that once the picket signs were laid down and everyone returned to their respective classrooms, that the union wouldn’t turn right back around and continue to fight against the schools of the parents that had just provided support.

Full disclosure. I grew up attending an Inglewood public school for elementary school and junior high. I am now a parent of a child attending an LAUSD magnet school with teachers that are striking, teachers that I love and support and care about. But prior to this academic year, my daughter attended a wonderful, progressive independent charter school full of outstanding parents, teachers and administrators. I, myself, am also a former elementary school teacher, working first as a Kindergarten teacher at an independent charter school in Leimert Park for six years, then for four more years as a fifth grade math, science and writing teacher at an independent charter school in Boston. Having seen both sides -- as a teacher and parent -- I have both great concern for the well-being of traditional neighborhood schools, as well as much respect for the work being done at charters. And, frankly, it baffles and saddens me that the two are so often pitted against one another.

In my experience, it seems to be largely a one-sided war. Both as a teacher and a parent at charter schools, I really don’t ever remember there being much urge to compare themselves to, compete with or denigrate any surrounding schools public, private, charter or otherwise. The focus was almost entirely on the school itself, how to improve instruction and opportunity for the students there, and how to remain in compliance and the good graces of the always-watchful powers-that-be so that renewals would continue to be granted, and the schools could continue their work. 

Traditional district schools on the other hand, and their union specifically, continuously seem to have an unhealthy preoccupation with the nearby charter schools they more clearly view as competitors. They are described as being profit-oriented, as elitist, as institutions prone to dancing around the rules and with a multitude of other half-truths and untruths that have become talking points for anti-charter politicians, but in my experience are entirely absent.  When the occasional charter does run afoul or otherwise fails, the news is often gleefully celebrated and advertised as if it somehow illustrates the truths about all or even most charters. Union members and parents are regularly called to protest new applications, scheduled renewals and co-location efforts alike, and it can get uncomfortably ugly.

The charter school my daughter attended had to co-locate in its first year at a school that was entirely hostile toward its presence. Parents and children, some as young as five or six, were sometimes shouted at when entering school grounds. There were reports of both charter teachers and parents having their vehicles vandalized. In one instance, there was an anti-charter neighbor, whipped up by a UTLA member, that flicked a lit cigarette into the car of a charter parent and her infant child, then chased them up the street. That’s not to say these actions represent the vast majority of public school parents and teachers any more than the failings of a small handful of charters represent their qualified brethren, but it does provide some vivid examples of where the hateful rhetoric can lead those most predisposed to being incited. It’s the sad reality of the seeds sown by a union all too often intent on promoting a toxic “us versus them” environment.

And for what?

Charter schools aren’t going anywhere, and even if they did, choice certainly isn’t. Even in an alternate reality where charters ceased to exist, parents who sought alternatives to the local neighborhood school would have them. Private schools and religiously-affiliated ones have siphoned off numbers from the neighborhood default long before charters were even a concept and would still be an option for parents who had the means. Permitting into more attractive schools within the same district or even more alluring ones in other nearby districts is relatively easy with a little effort and savvy. Homeschooling is still a preferred option for some families. Without charters, a good number of those families currently sending their kids to charters would still end up choosing another option. If anything, those most adversely effected by the loss of good charter options would be the children and families in less affluent neighborhoods without the ability to afford the tuition of private school or religious schools, without the time or resources to be able to homeschool and, perhaps, without the same wherewithal or knowledge of the permit process or the ability to easily send their kids to schools of further distance.

Do charters provide some measure of competition for traditional neighborhood schools? Of course. So do magnets and new dual language immersion programs. But as with nearly everything, that’s not a bad thing. Far more often than not, competition serves to promote a better product and benefits to the customers. There’s no reason education should be any different. As a former teacher, I know it’s an art. It takes talent to do well, and even then, no one has all the answers. There’s always more to be learned, different methods to be explored. As a teacher I was constantly trying to pick things up from my fellow colleagues, from administrators and coaches, from educational experts, from online resources, from fellow teachers at other schools, all in honing my craft. Improvement is driven by innovation and creativity. And the fact of the matter is charters, since they aren’t quite as beholden to the same district-wide regulations and limitations in terms of delivering instruction and programs, are simply more focused on and able to experiment with that innovation and creativity.

To attempt to stymie that is not only disappointing, it’s irresponsible.  And it’s a shame that district schools aren’t afforded that same latitude and given that same responsibility. But isn’t that a problem with inward solutions? Why isn’t the push on attempting to make district schools less hamstrung, rather than going after the ones that thankfully aren’t? If I’m a teenager upset about a friend having more freedom and leeway to foster his interests and individuality, wouldn’t it be best to discuss with my parents how I could have the same rather than trying to get my folks to talk to his parents about stripping him of the same?  Competition for students existed long before charters, and would continue to exist without them. That’s a good thing, as monopolies rarely, if ever, benefit the customer. When the long-held territorial free reign of cable companies finally came to an end with the dawning of satellite providers such as DirecTV and DISH, the subscribers were the ultimate winners. Certainly that would not have been the case if the answer had been to bar or limit DirectTV from doing business. I’m not sure why the answer would be any different when it comes to those providing educational services.

A popular rallying point among the anti-charter bandwagon is that charter schools have an adverse effect on traditional neighborhood schools, and thus, students and families at large. Unfortunately, it’s a catchy and all-too-often believed talking point about an issue that’s far more complex and multi-faceted. Yes, as an alternative there are some ways that the existence of charters – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – makes things more difficult for the traditional district schools, but there’s also a variety of evidence showing how they can be beneficial -- not only to students and families, but to local schools as well. For instance, a 2017 peer-reviewed Temple University study of traditional public schools and charters in New York City found that, in fact, the presence of charters actually increased test scores in Math and ELA, led to increased per-pupil spending and tended to increase school safety, climate and morale at the neighboring public schools. Furthermore, the report showed that the effects were more pronounced the closer in proximity the charter school was to a traditional public school, that the positive effects were strongest at schools where co-location occurred, and that the at-risk students were the subgroup that benefited the most.

If gains can be demonstrated just simply based on proximity, imagine what could be done if traditional public schools actually worked in collaboration with charters, opened themselves to sharing best practices and, when possible, resources, and strived to build mutually beneficial relationships with these schools rather than waging public relations and territorial wars against them? There is some hope the tide is slowly turning. Researchers at the University of Arkansas focused on the response to charters by traditional schools in 12 major cities across the United States and concluded, “Traditional public schools are aware of the threats posed by alternative education providers, but they are analyzing the moves made by competitors and demonstrating that they may have the savvy to reflect, replicate, experiment, and enter into partnerships with school choice providers. This evidence suggests that while bureaucratic change may often be slow, it may be a mistake to underestimate the capacity of these bureaucratic institutions to reform, adapt, and adjust in light of changing environments.”

Look, I love teachers, and as a former one myself, my natural inclination is always to support them. As a child of parents who were activists in the 1960s and 70s, I’m also drawn to those standing up to bureaucracy and the powers that be and demanding better. I know the school districts can be maddeningly slow and inexcusably unresponsive when it comes to addressing necessary change for schools and support for classrooms and those leading them. I value strong district public schools, have full stake in them with my daughter now attending one, am in full agreement it is important to fight for their health and prosperity, and clearly many of the issues the union is striking over are vital in improving student outcomes. In my heart, the emotional part of me wants to be standing with them on the picket line.

But the logical side of me is conflicted. To me, as much as the union would like to portray the conflict as being about championing students and teachers, about class sizes and more vital personnel, it is not. If it were, it would’ve been settled already because no one is against those things. Not the district, not the Board, not the state, not charters, not anyone. The strike is about money, and more specifically, if there’s enough of it to go around to meet the idealistic demands of the union that, in a perfect world, would be a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, as my mother is always fond of telling me, you can’t squeeze blood from a stone, and the unpleasant reality is that is ultimately what the union – however well-intentioned the majority of its members may be – is asking LAUSD to do. Multiple organizations, including independent ones, have warned that using one-time reserves for the ongoing expenses the union seeks is a recipe for expedited insolvency and eventual state takeover. Conversely, no independent research has been offered to support the union’s claims to the contrary. That’s awfully hard to ignore no matter how much I love and want to support teachers and students.  Much of the oft-discussed almost $1.9 billion dollar reserve in question is already earmarked for employee raises and is being used to help fund the obligation of retiree pensions and health care – a topic the union is certainly not keen on talking about. No matter how worthy the cause, you simply can’t spend money that, in essence, has already been spent.   

I can almost put that logic aside and stand by the striking teachers, regardless, simply because having the conversation about reasonable pay increases, increased per pupil spending, class sizes and additional personnel is valuable in and of itself. It’s a fight that might be better taken to Sacramento than Beaudry, but teachers’ voices, nonetheless, must be heard. Were those the only issues on the table, my daughter and I would very well be right alongside them in the rain supporting and drawing more needed attention to the causes.
But the continued war on charter schools is not something I can ever stand behind in good conscience. It baffles me how an organization can claim to be all about students and their future in one breath and then vilify school choice, innovation and charters in the next. To me, that’s a direct contradiction. You simply cannot be pro-student if you are anti-charter. There’s just too much evidence showing the benefit of charters in the educational realm, particularly for the neediest students. It’s a tired and outdated stance and one that, at this point, reeks of self-interest, not an interest in the well-being of students, families and communities. 

Right now, there are roughly 16,669 LAUSD families on charter waitlists, 19,980 in the greater Los Angeles area and 73,000 statewide. Only one in three parents who apply to magnet schools gets in. It’s abundantly clear that parents want quality options aside from potentially underperforming neighborhood public schools. The answer cannot be to take those options away.

I’ve scoured too many articles and social media posts to count over the last few weeks, and it’s simply maddening how many teachers and parents seem to believe and continue the propaganda and lies. Charters are all about money. Charter supporters are the same people who support Trump and DeVos. Charters have no oversight.  Charter teachers are less experienced and less effective. Charters pick and choose their students, stealing the best and the brightest and turning away those that might adversely effect their numbers.

But you know what? After teaching for a decade in charter schools, working with other charters during that time, sending my own daughter to a charter for two years and hearing the range of experiences from friends who send their children to charters, I can attest that I’ve seen none of those things. At least in California, for-profit charters are illegal. The staff and family that make them up skew heavily liberal and Democrat. Both the charters I worked for and the one my daughter attended received regular oversight visits from the district and needed continual approval for renewal. Like most places, teachers did have varying levels of experience, but by and large, they were both dedicated and effective, and in the rare cases they were not, colleagues and administrators worked closely with them. If there still wasn’t improvement, they were let go, a luxury that traditional public schools generally don’t have with their unionized teachers, save for some criminal complaint. And other than the first charter I worked for, which accepted everyone because they were under-enrolled in the beginning, admission across the board was done by lottery, random selection not cherry picking, and the only weighted preferences I’ve ever been aware of in the process were to founders, siblings, family of staff, students that lived within a given proximity, and, in one case, to those who qualified for free or reduced lunch.

It has also been my experience with all charters I’ve been associated with that they welcome collaboration and mutually beneficial relationships with other schools of all types, and both staff and families are tremendously supportive of neighborhood public schools and their teachers. At my daughter’s former school, as rumors swirled of raucous and potentially antagonistic visits this week from striking union protestors, the immediate response aside from disappointment was to organize bringing in coffee, bagels and doughnuts and greet them with smiles.

Similarly, the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) seems willing to use this moment as an opportunity to extend the olive branch and broker a positive and potentially powerful working relationship between charters and union schools. On Friday, CCSA President and CEO Myrna Castrejón wrote an open letter addressing UTLA leader Alex Caputo-Pearl.

“You and I know thousands of inspiring Los Angeles teachers, counselors, and principals who dedicate their lives to helping kids thrive at District and charter public schools…The people that make up our public schools are absolutely worth fighting for. I write to ask you to fight for them without pitting them against each other,” Castrejón wrote.  “The county has weighed in. The state has weighed in. The funding pie can and should grow, but we know that L.A. Unified’s financial crisis is real. All California public schools need more money from the state so we can do more to support our most vulnerable students. That’s something we should march for together in Sacramento instead of fighting over the crumbs at home.”

Seems like a reasonable offer to accept. And for a union currently waving the banners and pickets about how they stand for students, families and the future of education, it should be an absolute given.

— Michael Sweeney is the father of a student attending an LAUSD magnet school and a former teacher