It’s an endless battle, as unions and Soviet-like bureaucracy use rules and investigations to destroy high-performing competitors.
The nation’s second-largest school system, the Los Angeles Unified School District, is pretty much everything you would expect from a hulking, union-controlled, wasteful, big urban school monopoly. But two stories stick in my mind as illustrative of what happens when people turn over something as important as education to the bureaucrats.
First, at Jefferson High School in 2014 the administration couldn’t even get classes scheduled properly, thus leaving many students stuck in reportedly “fake” classes with no academic content — or sent home, or sitting twiddling their thumbs — for several weeks, even months. This wreaked havoc on many of the kids’ college plans given they couldn’t get required credits. It wasn’t fixed until they filed a lawsuit and secured a settlement from the district.
Second, in 2009 the Los Angeles Times published a blockbuster series on the school district, and its notorious “rubber rooms” where teachers who may be unfit for the classroom sit around and wait for their paychecks. “About 160 instructors and others get salaries for doing nothing while their job fitness is reviewed,” according to one Times article. “They collect roughly $10 million a year, even as layoffs are considered because of a budget gap.”
It’s no surprise, then, that LAUSD has a booming charter-school movement. Many Los Angeles philanthropists, Republican and Democrat alike, have boosted the movement and invested heavily in school-board elections so that the district will approve more of these educational alternatives and be less apt to just do the teachers’ union bidding. After the last election, reformers were able to help elect four of seven board members.
One flaw with charters schools, of course, is that they are taxpayer-funded schools rather than genuine private alternatives. As such, they still typically operate under the discretion of the local school district, and L.A.’s bureaucrats have not always been friends to these schools. The LAUSD’s Office of the Inspector General is responsible for rooting out misspending within the district. But charter advocates say the office launches open-ended and heavy-handed investigations into charter schools, thus using its powers to discredit them as they seek renewals.
And in a battle that’s been heating up this week, district officials had recommended that 14 of LAUSD’s highest-performing charter schools — some of which had been recognized by the state and federal departments of education as among the best in the nation — be denied the district’s approval to operate. The dispute had nothing to do with educational quality, but regulations. The school board insists that charters accept a growing list of “district-approved language.”
Included in the language is a clause allowing the district to change any existing language any time it chooses. Charters often agree to fairly tough terms so that they can get started and get the funding going, but L.A.’s charter movement is starting to bristle at a constantly expanding list of rules. This demand helped push them over the edge.
Most of these rules force the charter schools to conform to the same kind of bureaucratic regulations and legal codes that apply to traditional public schools. Charters succeed because they are able to circumvent the union work rules and politically correct bilge passed by the Legislature. But the district gets to control them by forcing them to embrace additional rules — or have their charters denied.
All that administrative nonsense is time-consuming and costly. Charter schools complain that they have to hire compliance officers and spend so much time filling out paperwork and dealing with political considerations that it erodes their student-focused priorities. Furthermore, the whole purpose of charters is to allow their operators to have entrepreneurial-like flexibility. If you’re following bureaucratic edicts, you can’t be flexible or innovative.
There was nothing particularly new about the latest district language that charters were being forced to embrace, but the operators decided to push back as a group. They also saw political changes that have tilted more in their favor. Unfortunately, even the new school board rejected a Hebrew-language charter school recently because it wouldn’t embrace the regulations. So it was unclear what the new board was going to do at the meeting scheduled on Tuesday, when trustees were planning to vote on the denials recommended by staff.
Crisis was averted, however. Southern California Public Radio just reported that “top L.A. Unified officials are prepared to reverse themselves and recommend the board approve 11 of those 14 charter applications after reaching a deal with leading charter school representatives, according to three sources with knowledge of the negotiations.” The district will reportedly relent on some of its rules — but it’s not going to trim the sails of its Office of the Inspector General.
It’s pretty ridiculous, though, having these charter schools live under the thumb of a district that often is hostile to the competition they offer. If regulations and bureaucratic edicts were such a great approach, then why does LAUSD have rubber rooms? How well did the system’s reams of regulations help those Jefferson High School students stuck in the auditorium for weeks while the school’s administrators figured out how to schedule classes?
It might be better for the charters to defy the board, and appeal their case to the county or state departments of education, which are more likely to fastidiously follow the state’s generally pro-charter education code. That could also set a statewide precedent for bypassing recalcitrant districts. That’s something the unions fear — and one reason they tried (but failed) to pass a bill last year that would forbid charters from appealing district denials.
I regularly use an analogy to illustrate why this whole approach to schooling is ridiculous. We create taxpayer-funded monopoly schools under the theory that education is so important that our society can’t trust the free marketplace. Well, food is even more important than schooling. We all have to eat, right? So how about if we publicly fund grocery stores — and then everyone must shop at the designated store in their neighborhood?
If you don’t like its offerings or service, you have no choice (unless you want to pay twice for groceries) but to shop there. But you could organize your neighbors and spend years and a small fortune trying to take control of the board that manages the store. If successful, you must learn how to operate a food market when you’re not busy with your day job. Seriously, is this the most sensible model for providing for people’s fundamental needs? Free markets work best.
When one considers the miseducation going on at LAUSD and other public-school systems, it’s imperative to have these charter alternatives. But the real solution is to shut down the government-run schools entirely and let parents shop around for the truly private schools that best meet their kids’ needs. How could that possibly be worse than what I described above?
Jefferson High School, Los Angeles (Svgperson/Creative Commons)