Los Angeles charter school scene

The recently settled teachers strike in Los Angeles contains lesson for other large cities (“A rift over charter schools,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 24).  When charter schools first began there, they were welcomed because the Los Angeles Unified School District at the time was bursting with students.  But that is no longer the case, as they continue to siphon off students whose parents for one reason or another are disaffected with traditional schools in the district.

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice.  But I’ve written repeatedly that comparing outcomes of charter schools with traditional schools is unfair.  A new study confirms this.  Researchers sent emails from fictitious parents to 6,452 charter and traditional schools in 29 states.  The email asked if any student was eligible to apply.  It randomly assigned attributes about the student.  For example, disability status, poor behavior record, high or low academic achievement.  The goal was to determine if such schools discriminate against certain groups of students.

Even though federal law prohibits all public schools from discriminating on the basis of race, religion and disability status, charter schools enroll a smaller proportion of such students than traditional public schools. It’s interesting to note that so called no-excuses charters were 10 percent less likely to respond.  What are they hiding?  I maintain that if charter schools had to play by the same rules as their counterparts, there would be little differences in outcomes.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

12 Replies to “Los Angeles charter school scene”

  1. “School choice” is an example of the classic dilemma that pits what’s best for an individual against what’s best for society as a whole.

    In the inner-cities, where there are many concerned/functional parents and many unconcerned/dysfunctional parents, “school choice” means that many of the concerned/functional parents will chose to send their children to one set of schools while the unconcerned/dysfunctional send their children to a different set of schools (not so much via choice but rather by default).

    “School choice” accordingly results in tracking inner-city students based on parent characteristics, rather than student characteristics.

    The schools serving the children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents will be chaotic disasters unless the school system implements unusual programs to address the problems.

    Because the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents are not a significant political force, the school system will rarely feel pressured to implement the needed unusual programs in these chaotic schools.

    Ultimately, the children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents who attend these chaotic schools will grow up to be “problem” adults — unskilled or low-skilled workers, low-wage earners, unemployed, drug users, teenage/single mothers, welfare recipients, criminals, prisoners.

    All because the inner-city school system decided to allow the concerned/functional parents to opt out of the neighborhood schools rather than 1) reinstituting tracking in the neighborhood schools based on student characteristics; and 2) implementing the unusual programs in the neighborhood schools that were necessary to address the problems of the children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents.

    Also, virtually all of the “choice” schools are charters or voucher-supported privates. These charters and voucher-supported privates usually have teachers, curriculum, facilities and support services that are inferior to those in the neighborhood public schools. So, even the students of the concerned/functional parents who attend the “choice” schools receive a less than optimum education.

    Bottom line: The real problem is the chaotic nature of inner-city neighborhood public schools. “School choice” is the elected officials’ cowardly response to this problem. Rather than eliminating the chaos in the inner-city neighborhood schools, the elected officials use “school choice” to allow the concerned/functional parents to escape the chaotic neighborhood schools for less-chaotic but otherwise inferior “choice” schools while condemning the children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents to a disastrous educational experience in the chaotic neighborhood schools.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: Ethicists remind us that it’s the duty of parents to choose schools that are best for their own children but at the same time working to improve schools for others. I think that best sums up the situation in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The only problem with tracking is when should it begin. Singapore, which is noted for the quality of its schools, begins the process with the Primary School Leaving exam, as it is called. That is far too soon and would be resisted in this country. But certainly by high school most students and their parents know what direction their education should follow. I still maintain that vocational education, coupled with apprenticeships, should be given greater attention. Not all students are college material.

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  3. It’s hard to argue against the concept of choice. It’s the essence of freedom after all. But sometimes words are co-opted and lose their original meaning. The word “choice” has now been weaponized against public schools. Add it to the list with “reform” and many others. What can we do when the definition of a word has been changed by master persuaders? We are simply not speaking the same language anymore. This is one of the classic techniques that cults use to separate their followers from society. It’s called “loading the language”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thought_Reform_and_the_Psychology_of_Totalism

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  4. mrjscienceblog: Yes, words need to be understood in context, including choice. But it is, as you correctly note, the essence of freedom. It applies to where we live, what we buy, what we read etc. I maintain choice is the best way, as things stand, for parents to give their children the education they alone think is best.

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    1. I agree with your statement, and it’s a healthy perspective to view everything as a choice. However when both “choices” are corrupt (think political parties) then choosing becomes more problematic. No one is saying that parents shouldn’t have choice over the education of their child. In reality they choose every waking moment of their life what they are teaching their children by the example of how they live. In the context of shopping for schools, the issue becomes INFORMED choice. You can go on an orchestrated school tour or enter a bogus lottery but how does a parent really find out about a school? I’m asked this often. My best answer is that even school with great reputations have some weak teachers and there are diamonds hidden in the less admired schools. In elementary, savvy parents try to “choose” the teacher they want, it’s not too difficult to find out through word of mouth. But in middle school parents are much less empowered to “choose” the quality of their child’s teachers, no matter which choice they make. In the end it comes back to institutional integrity and that’s what our strike was about. We want parents to have BETTER choices!

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  5. mrjscienceblog: There’s no question that choice requires information. Not all parents are equally prepared to analyze to do so. But being a parent by its very nature involves responsibility. In an ideal world, all neighborhood schools would be so good that parents would not have to make a choice. They would simply enroll their children there. But we know that is not reality.

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  6. Walt, MJSB —

    The problem with “school choice” — charters and voucher-supported privates) — is that, when a school system goes down this road, the school system inevitably denies parents and students what is most likely the best choice: a non-chaotic neighborhood school with superior teachers, curriculum, facilities, and support services.

    Only talking here about the inner-city school system. As a practical matter, the suburban school systems rarely, if ever, worry about “school choice”; their neighborhood schools are not chaotic so the parents are content to send their children to the neighborhood schools and there accordingly is little/no pressure to offer charters/voucher-supported privates.

    Many/most inner-city schools are chaotic disasters. School systems respond to this real problem by offering the concerned/functional parents the choice of sending their children to non-chaotic charters and/or non-chaotic voucher-supported privates.

    But, as noted in my original comment, this school system response shortchanges the charter/voucher-supported private students because those schools will usually have inferior teachers, curriculum, facilities and support services. This school system response also shortchanges the neighborhood school students because those schools will continue to be chaotic disasters — probably even more chaotic because the charters/voucher-supported privates will have siphoned off many/most of the children of the concerned/functional parents, thereby increasing the concentration in the neighborhood schools of the children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents.

    The best choice for all the students and parents is neither a chaotic neighborhood school nor a non-chaotic but otherwise inferior charter/voucher-supported private school. Obviously, the best choice for all the students and parents is a non-chaotic neighborhood school with its superior teachers, curriculum, facilities and services.

    It seems likely that a school system could, if it really tried, reduce and perhaps even eliminate the chaos in the neighborhood public schools. Reinstate tracking — starting perhaps in kindergarten and definitely in first grade. Enforce reasonable behavior standards. Put a second adult in the “lower track” classes. Provide in-school suspension facilities. Staff up the counseling function. Pay teachers for home visits and provide a second adult to accompany the teacher. Train low-SES parents re effective parenting — particularly how to provide high-quantity/high-quality adult-child verbal interaction from birth through kindergarten. Provide preschool starting as young as possible for low-SES children — preschool that also emphasizes high-quantity/high-quality adult-child verbal interaction.

    But, charters and voucher-supported privates are much cheaper for the school system and much safer politically for the elected officials.

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  7. Labor Lawyer: As I’ve written often before, in an ideal world there would be no need for choice because all neighborhood schools would be so good parents wouldn’t think twice about enrolling their children any place else. Yes, we should try to improve the education offered by traditional public schools using what you propose. But what happens if they still fall short? Should parents be denied the right to send their children to charter schools?

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    1. If all else fails, I’d suggest a lottery system w/in the neighborhood school system. This is what NYC is doing now — but, I’d eliminate the charter options and allow only the neighborhood school options. Another alternative would be adding magnet schools (public schools run by the public school system but with enrollment via student competition for a limited number of seats). The magnet schools would be an additional layer of tracking on top of the regular within-the-neighborhood-school tracking. The NYC approach is — like charters — tracking based on parent characteristics. The magnet approach is tracking based on a combination of parent and student characteristics. Both approaches have the disadvantage of requiring transporting students beyond their neighborhoods. But, both approaches have the advantage — relative to charters — of providing all the students with the superior teachers, curriculum, facilities and support services of the neighborhood schools rather than the inferior teachers, curriculum, facilities and support services of the charters and the voucher-supported privates.

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  8. Labor Lawyer: No system of choice is perfect. Charters use a lottery when there are more applicants than openings. In Los Angeles at least, magnet schools give preference to applicants whose sibling is enrolled. So you see, you can’t please everyone.

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