Los Angeles Mayor Favors Charters in School Turnaround Bids

Published September 16, 2010

In the ongoing effort to turn around some of the worst schools in the nation’s second largest school district, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) has thrown his support behind reformers who favor letting private and nonprofit charter school operators take over failing public schools.

With the new school year underway, Villaraigosa is stepping up his campaign for public school choice. He says his goal for LAUSD is to create “an autonomous, empowered network of schools.”

The mayor touted his public school choice plans at the grand opening of Camino Nuevo Academy, a charter elementary school in downtown Los Angeles, which began the year with more than 350 students.

Choice “stands for the proposition that new schools and schools that are currently failing… ought to be able to make a choice about whether or not they’ll continue the status quo or engage in the kind of innovation and transformative reform that you see at Camino Nuevo,” Villaraigosa said.

Mayor Chides Superintendent

Last year the Los Angeles school board passed, at Villaraigosa’s behest, the Public School Choice resolution. The mayor described it as one of the most radical school reform initiatives in the nation, allowing charters, nonprofits, the UTLA, teacher cooperatives, and the district itself to bid for management of new and low-performing schools.

But in the first call for proposals, held last November, charter school operators won control of just three out of 36 schools. None of the city’s three largest charter school operators—Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, Green Dot, and Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools—were chosen. Instead, the district awarded most of the turnaround schools to teachers groups controlled by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the district’s teachers union.

This July, as the district was preparing for a new round of proposals, Villaraigosa publicly chided his handpicked school superintendent, Ramon Cortines, for favoring the teachers union and establishment groups over private charter operators. Three weeks later, Cortines announced plans to retire.

Another round of bidding will be held later this fall, in which applicants may bid to manage other low-performing schools.

Skeptical About Turnarounds

Although Villaraigosa and other state and federal officials have touted the idea of school turnarounds, Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, says the evidence on school turnarounds suggests very few schools improve.

“Especially when schools are not starting from scratch with new school leaders and a new school culture,” Snell said.

Snell says she is skeptical of the LAUSD effort, noting how district bureaucrats undermined the first round of proposals.

“The [district] made it very undesirable for the charters to apply in the first place, because the district requirements, such as residential assignment, interfere with core components of the charter school model, such as open enrollment,” Snell explained. “The district began the process by compromising the charter school model. When the charter schools did apply, the teacher union-led initiatives were given priority.”

Board Approved Doubtful Plans

Snell notes state officials approved many union-led plans even though they had doubts about them.

“Many of the teacher-led teams were approved by the school board with reservations. This means that even before they started the school improvement work, the school board did not have full confidence in the teams and their plans,” Snell said.

‘Politics Before Children’

Gabe Rose, deputy director of the Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based coalition of parents advocating parental choice, says he shares Villaraigosa’s disappointment with district officials. Rose called the bias against charters another instance of “politics being put before children.”

“There are some really great charter operators in the area with a proven track record whose bids were completely rejected,” Rose said. “The teachers union and many others benefit from the status quo, and thousands of calls were made to try to convince parents to support the districts’ proposals instead of charters. It’s politics.

“At the end of the day, what I care about is allowing whoever best raises educational performance to run a school,” Rose added. “Education policy should be simple: Do what’s best for the children, not the adults.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas.