WHAT APPLAUSE FOR LAUSD SUPERINTENDENT RAMON CORTINES? HERE IT COMES AMID THE CONSTANT TURMOIL BRUNTING UP AGAINST THE SCHOOLS AND THE CITY OF LA – A SMALL GLIMMER OF HOPE
By Diana L. Chapman
While the soot is simmering down and the controversy and mayhem in Los Angeles and her schools has leapfrogged to the next ugly battle, I kept my judgment quiet for a time over a charter issue and watched others beat up Los Angeles Unified Schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines.
It’s clear, many critics charged, that Cortines failed to overhaul the massive district. He had the chance to allow the takeovers of 36 schools that were up for grabs to outside operators, either non-profits or charters. Some contend Cortines paled at using charter schools, they argued, the best possible pathway to break up and improve the district, which serves 617,000 plus students and resides over 891 “traditional” schools.
Cortines set off a furor when he opted to convert only four of those 36 campuses that the school board put up for grabs “under public school choice” approved last year.
Call the sup overly picky, or underhanded or in my case “wise,” to take it a few schools at a time, there’s one thing that’s apparent – he’s using the competitive edge to clean up his schools; those campuses that remain lackluster and show failure to improve likely will face the same competitive gauntlet again next year.
I have my own reasons for not wanting many more charters in Los Angeles.
I fear them.
I don’t believe they are the best or brightest way to break up the gargantuan Los Angeles district – or improve it; More, I see it as a dangerous vehicle to our constitutional right to public education as the popularity and trend of charters sweeps like tidal wave across the nation.
It’s the very thing that all of us need to understand and protect – the right to education for every American citizen. My biggest concerns at the moment remain at the heart of what’s in it for special education students? LAUSD has many resources for these children; charters do not.
What will happen with those children?
Danny Weil, author of the Charter School Movement, who has researched the topic from a national level takes it even further, contending that testing companies and the private book industry can make a fortune off privatizing education. A movement exists among the educational elite of school administrators and these companies to turn charters into cash cows – starting with putting a city’s educational system under mayoral oversight.
“The real goal with charters is vouchers,” claims Weil, who has studied it systematically. “Get all the poor youth of color into large charter chains and then give vouchers to white suburbia so they do not have to attend the city schools. Trojan horses (is what they are) and that is what they have always been.”
The charter school trend signals the destruction of a “free” public education system, he argues. In other words, he claims, many states are allowing these schools to run for – gasp! – and this is truly scary – a profit.
Let me back up a bit here first and put this into perspective in our Los Angeles schools.
Los Angeles Unified has allowed more than 161 campuses already to become charters – the largest number in any school district in the nation. Those charters serve 67,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, said Lydia Ramos, a district spokeswoman.
The school board has put in some safeguards – such as any entity stepping forward must have a non-profit status and also must be willing to serve the areas students. But there are ways around this and here is what I fear if we keep adding them:
· --Charters don’t follow the same stringent regulations of the state and can kick students out and return them to regular public schools, which in turn, have to accept those students
· --Adding charters will be like inserting hundreds of more tentacles to an already tangled octopus of the Los Angeles educational system which will have little manpower – especially during the current budget crises – to check on their accountability
· --That elsewhere, charters have become organizations that are not run by non-profits, but by for profit entities
Charters have ended up a lot like Los Angeles Unified Schools – some good, some terrible and some in between. Cortines knows this. So it makes sense to take it slowly when handing off our schools.
That’s why I’m applauding Cortines, for keeping a careful watch over where any new charters head.
I honestly can’t get my arms around Weil’s philosophy, but I admit to nagging persistent questions – such as why a Los Angeles middle school charter was allowed to fire two teachers who wanted to teach -- during Black History Month -- about the hanging death of Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at a white woman– a piece of history school officials claimed was too emotional for students.
Hello? This is a true chunk of American History and middle school is often the best time to teach about racism and ethnic morality.
And what about the charter in New Jersey that refused to allow a citizen access to public records – even through the Freedom of Information Act – even though it’s a quote “public” school. And why can charters so easily kick out students and send them back to public schools – when charters are also public entities?
Many charters use the “cookie cutter” approach to education in the inner city – also disconcerting as it fails to allow for free thinking to flow and for students to mold opinions from the information they are receiving.
Weil – who has spent countless hours researching the issues of the charter trend and shares them in his book – said the charter movement kicked off in the early 1990s and now 4,000 such schools exist in the nation educating one million students.
Further, he adds, he doesn’t trust anyone and can see a pattern lining up with for-profit schools, high end officials and the privatization of education.
“Follow the money trail,” he said.
While I have difficult embracing this concept, it still nags at me: What if he’s right?
Diana L. Chapman, a Los Angeles writer for many years, can be reached at email@example.com.