Eli Broad's $490 million plan is being touted as the silver bullet to save education in Los Angeles Unified Schools (LAUSD). His plan would create 260 new charter schools, enrolling about 130,000 students, nearly half of LAUSD by the year 2023. Is this the silver bullet needed to shake up LA schools? Or is it a poison pill that will kill Los Angeles Unified?
A House Built on Sand
The Broad initiative is built on a premise that fundamentally misunderstands the real challenges facing urban schools. Specifically, that growing inequality and poverty in the United States is a major driver for the so-called "achievement gap," and as the famous 1966 Coleman report and subsequent publications noted, the best way to improve achievement is to address issues related to inequality and poverty like hunger, homelessness, and health care.
Furthermore, it perpetuates the narrative that all traditional public schools in LA have failed, and charter schools are the solution. It ignores the over two decades worth of research on charter schools that tell us they don't perform any better or any worse than public schools. It even sites a 2013 CREDO Report asserting that charter schools outperform traditional public schools nationally, an assertion that has been since been disputed by Kevin Welner Director of The National Education Policy Center (they published the CREDO report)
Putting aside ideological arguments, a plan of this magnitude is likely to usher in some much-needed change, right?
Bad Foundation, Bad House
The current landscape of charter schools is quite different from its original vision. Albert Shanker the visionary of charter schools saw charters as innovative educational laboratories, unionized, locally designed drivers of change. Today, they tend to be run by large management firms called Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), are not unionized, suffer from double the rate of teacher turnover compared with districts, have contributed to higher levels of racial and economic segregation, and ultimately adopt the characteristics of traditional public schools.
There are certainly still smaller "mom and pop" charter schools like Community Roots in New York City that abide by strong social justice oriented missions, but the Broad plan intends to fund the growth of CMOs like KIPP and Green Dot in LA, KIPP having garnered major press coverage for their militaristic No-Excuses Discipline models, and Green Dot having a list of problems ranging from achievement to personnel.
The Broad plan will seek to draw its teachers from organizations specializing in alternative teacher certification like Teach For America (TFA) a controversial program criticized for placing untrained, underprepared teachers in challenging schools. However, declining numbers in TFA recruitment will unlikely meet the need for nearly 2,500 teachers requiring the recruitment of other outside organizations like The New Teacher Project (TNTP) and Relay Graduate School of Education. Similar to recruiting teachers, the plan will rely on the expansion of current alternative certification programs, and will likely use Broad's own school leader certification program.
History As Our Guide
Looking at states and districts that have done this type of large-scale charter expansion in recent history is quite informative. In New Orleans, ten years after Katrina, the "All-Charter System" has proven to be a failure. New Orleans schools continue to be plagued by low-test scores, low ACT scores, and students unprepared for college. In Ohio, reports of corruption, mismanagement, and lack of transparency plague the charter school expansion. Results of the Texas Charter school expansion experiment have yet to be seen.
Who Should Control Schools?
Perhaps the most significant question at hand is who should be in control of our schools? Eli Broad is a generous philanthropist, but he is no expert in education. There is no doubt that the institution of public schools is badly in need of repair, but the repair of our schools must be done by teachers, parents, students, and communities, democratically; it should not be placed into the hands of a billionaire who fundamentally misunderstands and willfully ignores the reality of public education. The Broad Charter expansion plan is an extension of his work funding the Vergara Case, an attack on teachers unions, democratic control of schools and an attempt to unravel the public school institution.
Silver Shotgun or Poison Pill
The Broad plan is intended to be a model for other urban cities. The claim that Los Angeles will have the strongest teacher and leader force in the state, based on its own plan is highly dubious, and the magical levels of achievement promised by this plan, ensuring no more than 10% of Los Angeles schools will be labeled failing, unfortunately does not jive with the evidence either. In assessing the size and vision of this plan, it seems that it is silver buckshot, not a bullet; and buckshots are messy. Perhaps more troubling is that if Los Angeles agrees to this plan, it is likely to be the poison pill that will kill democratic control of our schools.