The Los Angeles Teachers Strike Puts Charter Schools Under The Microscope

Teachers at traditional L.A. public schools aren't the only ones striking. So are educators from charter schools.

LOS ANGELES ― Tuesday, on the second day of the Los Angeles teachers strike, tens of thousands of educators protested in front of the California Charter Schools Association building at a rally so crowded that participants were standing shoulder to shoulder.

Among the crowd of protesters were teachers from Accelerated Charter Schools, who started their own strike Tuesday morning, along with members of the United Teachers Los Angeles union.

As the Los Angeles Unified School District strike heads into its third day ― affecting half a million students and over 30,000 teachers ― with no immediate end in sight, charter schools are in the spotlight. Teachers are asking the district for smaller class sizes and more support staff, and in the backdrop are larger issues about charter school growth and how it affects district finances.

And educators from the Accelerated Charter Schools ― a network of three schools ― are standing in solidarity while fighting for their own needs.

A strike of charter school educators is unprecedented in California and nearly unprecedented in the nation ― the vast majority of charter school educators are not unionized, unlike those from Accelerated Charter Schools. On Tuesday these educators joined the thousands of traditional public school teachers on strike, notably rallying outside the building of an organization that works to advance charter schools’ interests.

A strike involving charter school employees ― who are deeply critical of the system in which their schools operate ― only invites more criticism and is symbolic of the microscope that charters are currently under. The educators at Accelerated Charters are fighting for more job security, binding arbitration and health care benefits.

Educators picket outside the Accelerated Charter Schools building. Among the protesters were teachers from the network's schools, who started their own strike on Jan. 15.
Educators picket outside the Accelerated Charter Schools building. Among the protesters were teachers from the network's schools, who started their own strike on Jan. 15.
Al Seib via Getty Images

“A lot of the things [LAUSD teachers are] asking for are things that we need but can’t ask for because we don’t have job security,” said Julia Weinrott, a fourth-grade teacher at an Accelerated school who protested on Tuesday morning with nearly all her colleagues.

The CEO of Accelerated Charter Schools has expressed disappointment with the move, saying it puts “our students and families in the middle of contract demands, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“A lot of the things [LAUSD teachers are] asking for are things that we need but can’t ask for because we don’t have job security.”

- Julia Weinrott, fourth-grade teacher at an Accelerated charter school

LAUSD union leaders have framed their strike as a fight for the future of public education, one in which the creeping influence of charter schools is kept at bay. Union leaders have connected the district’s vast financial problems ― resulting in chronically understaffed and underresourced schools — with the growth of charter schools.

The first charter school in the country opened only in 1992, and since then, their numbers have grown at a rapid clip, especially in Los Angeles. Charter schools are publicly funded and privately run and therefore are not subject to all the same regulations and red tape as traditional public schools.

LAUSD educators who are on strike this week say that the system is unfair ― that when students transfer to charter schools, they take with them their per-pupil funding, leaving behind fixed infrastructure costs and draining a system that is designed to educate all students.

But painting charter schools as at the root of the LAUSD’s fiscal issues might be misleading, said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

She has studied an independent financial review of the district from 2015. It’s true that the district’s traditional public schools are losing students at an alarming rate, but only half those kids are leaving for charters. The other shifts are due to demographic changes or students leaving the district for any number of other reasons.

“I understand people being angry and confused, because it is complicated. But once you dig into the facts, charters didn’t cause this problem,” said Lake.

And much of the district’s financial woes can be attributed to mounting employee-related costs, like retiree benefits, amid an aging workforce. At the same time, the district receives comparatively little funding compared with others of its size around the country.

Still, there’s evidence that students in Los Angeles charter schools are outperforming their peers at traditional public schools. One study found that students in L.A. charter schools receive the equivalent of 50 more days in reading instruction and 79 days in math than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

But from an optics perspective, the reputational damage to charters may already be taking a toll. Throughout the week, a number of high-profile Democrats, some of whom are likely looking to run for president in 2020, tweeted their support for striking teachers.

And on Tuesday, when tens of thousands of teachers gathered to protest charter schools, the enthusiasm was conspicuous. Speakers and performers gave emotional accounts of the lot public school students have been handed.

The scene looked like an ocean of red-clad educators, who wore the color in solidarity with the national Red for Ed movement, as they danced with tambourines and chanted in unison, “The world is watching.” Speakers bashed Los Angeles Schools Superintendent Austin Beutner ― referred to as “billionaire Beutner” ― who is supportive of charter schools, as well as the major donors who have funneled money to pro-charter candidates on the district school board.

The crowd, including parents and students, was roaring.

“The politics around charter schools are going to really shift in California. And the union senses it. They are really vulnerable now,” said Pedro Noguera, a distinguished professor of education at UCLA, noting the election of union-backed candidates like Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

But for students, the issue may feel far more nuanced. Carla Rodriguez, a senior at the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, a traditional public school, rallied at City Hall in support of her teachers Monday. Her younger brother, though, attends a charter school and was in class.

She said that he’s really happy at his school, that it’s competitive and that he wouldn’t change his situation.

But she added that the whole dynamic has left a bad taste in her mouth.

“I guess in a way it’s not fair — the fact that they pay a lot of attention to them and not us,” said Rodriguez.

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