It’s been a rough few months for charter schools and Californians who believe students and parents are better off when they have educational choices —and it could get worse as the state legislature takes up multiple charter school bills.
Earlier this year when the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) reached a new labor agreement, it called on the school district’s board members to endorse state legislation that would prevent new charter schools from opening until the state conducts a “comprehensive” review of charters. The contract also gave UTLA more say on facility arrangements the district enters into with charter schools.
But that was just the beginning. The state legislature fast-tracked, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed, a bill aimed at forcing charter schools to hold open meetings and make a variety of records and documents public. Former Gov. Jerry Brown had vetoed a similar bill. And now, the state legislature is working on a package of anti-charter school measures that include blocking new charter schools by capping the number of charters to the number currently operating in the state, imposing a variety of limitations on where charter schools can be located, including giving public school districts the power to deny locations of charters that would be within their boundaries.
Teachers unions are one of the driving forces behind these measures but even if these harmful bills targeting charter schools move ahead, the core problems facing California’s school districts won’t be solved. And then, the union won’t be able to blame charter schools.
In January’s contract negotiations, UTLA incorrectly blamed charter schools for LAUSD’s declining enrollment — and the decrease in revenues that come with having fewer students in the district. In reality, LAUSD’s own Independent Financial Review Panel found the students that left LAUSD’s schools for charter schools only accounted for about half of the district’s overall enrollment losses. Demographic shifts, including declining birthrates, shifting migration patterns across Southern California, dropout rates and other factors were driving the drop in enrollment.
When you examine LAUSD’s results, it’s easy to understand why students and parents might be fleeing for better educations. Even LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner conceded that “Currently, for every 100 students who enter our high schools, about a dozen will drop out and only a dozen will graduate from college. Nearly 70 percent of the students in Los Angeles Unified are not proficient in math. About 60 percent are not proficient in English. Everyone agrees that these numbers are unacceptable.”
Blocking new charter schools and imposing onerous requirements on them won’t fix the academic shortcomings at public schools, nor will it solve the underlying fiscal issues facing many of them.
“California school districts’ expenses for employee pensions on average doubled to about $1,000 per student over the four years ending in 2017-18,” EdSource recently reported. “Rising pension costs will continue eating up a significant portion of new state revenue that districts could use in other ways, such as expanding academic programs, hiring school nurses and school counselors, or raising teachers’ pay.”
In fact, LAUSD’s new labor contract ignored the 500-pound gorilla in the room: the district’s health care benefits for teachers and retirees are among the most generous in the nation and are already eating up an astronomical 15 percent of the district’s budget annually. Between 2007 and 2017, the portion of long-term liabilities that are due within a year increased from $400 million to $800 million.
For years, school districts and teachers unions have punted on their dramatic structural fiscal problems. In the short-term, unions like UTLA may be getting away with blaming charter schools. But, in the long-term, as more money is spent on retirement benefits, less and less money will make it to classrooms to actually help students. And as districts run out of money to serve students, it will become crystal clear why parents and students should have the freedom to seek out charter schools that put students’ interests and needs ahead of budget-busting pension plans.
This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.