Posts Tagged ‘Charter schools’

Will Unions Cripple Kentucky’s Belated Charter-School Effort?

March 2, 2017

Opponents of reform are pushing a weak bill that maintains the local school boards’ monopoly.

An elementary school in Stanton, Ky., Feb. 18.

An elementary school in Stanton, Ky., Feb. 18. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Kentucky is one of only seven states that doesn’t allow charter schools, making it something of an educational backwater. Republicans have been trying to pass charter-school legislation since 2009, only to be stymied by Democrats, who had a lock on the governorship and state House.

But charters’ time in the Bluegrass State may have finally arrived. In 2015 Republican Matt Bevin, a charter-school champion, was elected governor. Then last year Republicans seized control of the Kentucky House for the first time since 1921 and unseated Speaker Greg Stumbo, a staunch opponent of school choice. Republicans now hold large majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly—64 of 100 seats in the House and 27 of 38 in the Senate.

Even teachers unions and local school boards seem resigned to the inevitability of allowing charter schools. To limit the damage to their interests, they’re trying to exploit divisions among Republicans to keep charters tightly contained by conceding regulatory authority to the local boards.

Kentucky schools rank about average nationwide, though large disparities exist among districts. Last year 77% of middle-school students in the Cincinnati suburb of Fort Thomas scored “proficient” on state math tests. Four miles away in Newport, only 30% did. For Jefferson County (Louisville), the figure was 39%.

“We have a great city, a beautiful downtown, trails,” says Lynn Schaber, a Newport mom whose second-grade son attends a Montessori school. “But people aren’t happy with the school system. As they say around here, it’s trikes, no bikes. People move out of the city once their kids get older than 3 because of the poor schools.”

Like many suburban and rural districts in Kentucky, Newport has only one elementary, middle and high school. Parents in low-performing districts who can afford it send their kids to private schools or move to districts with better schools like Fort Thomas, where the median home price is about twice that of Newport. Thus, public schools and cities become segregated along socioeconomic, and in some cases racial, lines. Nearly 90% of Newport students qualify for free or discounted lunches, compared with about 15% in Fort Thomas.

Such gaping inequities are driving support for charter-school legislation that would bring Kentucky’s education system into the 21st century. Last month state Rep. Phil Moffett introduced a bill that would allow local school districts, college governing boards, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, the Louisville and Lexington mayors, and the state Board of Education to authorize charters.

Multiple authorizers would enable students to travel outside their home districts to attend a charter. By contrast, district authorizers could limit enrollment to students within their bounds. This would be a huge impediment to charter growth in rural and suburban areas where there are fewer students. Newport’s system-wide enrollment is just 1,600 students—fewer than in some big-city high schools.

Mrs. Schaber has joined five other parents to devise plans for a charter school that will enroll students from six small cities across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. She notes that parents frequently move between the cities, depending on their job and housing. So it makes sense to form a regional charter.

Charter opponents are pushing a weaker bill that would vest local school boards with the sole power to authorize and regulate charters. That would let those boards, typically controlled by the unions, throw up roadblocks. While charters could appeal district decisions to the state Board of Education, the process would be cumbersome and costly. Only charters backed by well-heeled donors would have the resources to navigate and battle the education bureaucracy.

The experience of other states is instructive. Iowa, Kansas and Virginia don’t allow multiple authorizers and have few charter schools. Arizona, Minnesota and New York do, and have an abundance. Charters in the latter group of states are among the highest-performing nationwide.

The weaker bill would also require charters to participate in and contribute to the state’s insolvent public pension system, among the worst funded in the country. So they could be forced to pick up the retirement tab for union teachers in traditional public schools.

Local school boards have lobbied Republicans to reject legislation with multiple authorizers and instead back the diluted bill, which they say will hold charters more accountable. “People love their local school board,” says Mrs. Schaber. “They want to support it.”

That may be, but allowing local school boards to regulate their competition is fundamentally unfair. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last year that a law allowing Amtrak to regulate freight trains that compete for track time could not be sustained under the Fifth Amendment: “Giving a self-interested entity regulatory authority over its competitors violates due process.” The same principle should apply when children’s futures are at stake.

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.

Who’s Afraid of Betsy DeVos?

January 17, 2017

Trump’s Education nominee is the top Democratic target.

Democrats are searching for a cabinet nominee to defeat, and it’s telling that progressive enemy number one is Betsy DeVos. Donald Trump’s choice to run the Education Department has committed the unpardonable sin of devoting much of her fortune to helping poor kids escape failing public schools.

Progressives and their media allies have spent the last week roughing up Mrs. DeVos in preparation for her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, which will feature the charms of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Liberals claim that Mrs. DeVos, wife of former Amway president Dick DeVos, is unqualified to lead the Education Department because she’s never been a teacher.

Yet the same crowd howls that bankers shouldn’t be regulating banks. Which is it? Managing a bureaucracy isn’t like running a classroom, though both require a steely resolve. Most Education secretaries have been former teachers or school superintendents—not that student test scores are better for it.

Perhaps Mrs. DeVos’s most important qualification is that she has the courage of her convictions. Progressives are willing to brook billionaires who use their wealth to expand government or augment their political influence. Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker, whose family is a major Democratic patron, served as President Obama’s Commerce secretary. But a conservative who’s dedicated her private fortune to liberating poor kids trapped in lousy public schools? The horror!

The DeVoses have donated tens of millions of dollars to charity including a children’s hospital in Michigan and an international art competition in Grand Rapids. They’ve also given to Christian organizations, which the left cites as evidence of concealed bigotry. Yet education has been their main philanthropic cause.

During the 1990s, they patronized a private-school scholarship fund for low-income families and championed Michigan’s first charter school law. In 2000 they helped bankroll a voucher initiative, which was defeated by a union blitz. The DeVoses then turned to expanding charters, which have become Exhibit A in the progressive campaign against her. Unions claim Michigan charters are inferior to the state’s public schools and that 80% are run for profit.

These claims are spurious. Detroit charters are low performing—only 19% of students are proficient in English—but they’re better than the alternative. Charter students in Detroit on average score 60% more proficient on state tests than kids attending the city’s traditional public schools. Eighteen of the top 25 schools in Detroit are charters while 23 of the bottom 25 are traditional schools.

Two studies from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2013, 2015) found that students attending Michigan charters gained on average an additional two months of learning every year over their traditional school counterparts. Charter school students in Detroit gained three months.

Eighty-percent of Michigan charters utilize a private education service provider. Yet only about half are operated by a for-profit entity, and almost all of these are mom-and-pop businesses run by Michigan residents. While unions have fought to keep failing public schools open, Mrs. DeVos backed a 2009 law allowing the state to close public schools—charters included—that scored in the bottom 5% of the state for three consecutive years. Only seven of the 54 schools with two strikes in the past two years were charters.

The real reason unions fear Mrs. DeVos is that she’s a rare reformer who has defeated them politically. Prior to being tapped by Mr. Trump, she chaired the American Federation for Children (AFC), which has helped elect hundreds of legislators across the country who support private school choice. Last year AFC and its affiliate groups spent $5 million on elections compared to the teachers unions’ $138 million. Yet 108 of the 121 candidates AFC supported won their races.

AFC has built a broad coalition that includes black and Latino Democrats, undercutting the union conceit that vouchers are a GOP plot to destroy public schools. In 2000 four states had private-school choice programs with 29,000 kids. Today, 25 states have vouchers, tax-credit scholarships or education-savings accounts benefitting more than 400,000 students.

Even if they can’t defeat Mrs. DeVos’s nomination, unions hope to leave her so politically weakened that she won’t be able to implement her agenda. The character assassinations—e.g., that she supports anti-gay groups—are primarily intended to turn the bureaucracy and public against her.

Yet their nasty campaign reeks of political desperation. You know progressives have lost their moral bearings when they save their most ferocious assault for a woman who wants to provide poor children with the education they need to succeed in America.

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Betsy DeVos’s School Mission

November 25, 2016

One promise of the Trump Presidency is that it will try to break up Washington’s political cartels. Among the worst is the Education Department, and Betsy DeVos is well positioned to take it on as Mr. Trump’s nominee to run that wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions and cultural left.

Mrs. DeVos is a philanthropist who has devoted years and much of her fortune to promoting school reform, especially charter schools and vouchers. She chairs the American Federation for Children (AFC), which has fought in the trenches across the country for more school choice to liberate kids from failing schools. By trenches we mean hand-to-hand political combat in state legislative races against the teachers unions.

AFC was especially successful this year, as 108 of the 121 candidates it supported won their elections. AFC candidates in Florida won 20 of 21 targeted races. The group’s biggest coup was ousting a scourge of school choice in a Miami-Dade Senate district where Democrats are a majority. The teachers union dumped $1 million into the race but still lost.

The union hoped to demonstrate diminishing public support for Florida’s tax-credit scholarships—the largest private-school choice program in the country—which is under review by the state Supreme Court. AFC ran ads with parents of scholarship recipients demanding that opponents be held accountable.

Choice advocates scored other big victories this month in what is an underreported election story. Indiana Republican Jennifer McCormick dislodged State Education Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who attacked charters and vouchers during her four-year term. Republican Mark Johnson also defenestrated a union-backed superintendent in North Carolina.

Teachers unions fanned public fury over North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law to exact retribution against GOP Governor Pat McCrory, who repealed teacher tenure, expanded charters and established vouchers. Even if Mr. McCrory loses his tight race for re-election, the legislature has locked in funding for vouchers that will escalate over 12 years.

New York Republicans maintained their state Senate majority, which is a crucial bulwark against the union-controlled Assembly. At least nine of the 10 Republican candidates supported by the pro-charter group StudentsFirstNY prevailed.

Charter groups even racked up victories in California, where many legislative races featured two Democrats due to the state’s nonpartisan primary. In an East Bay Assembly seat, Democrat Tim Grayson beat Mae Torlakson, who is married to the state’s union-friendly superintendent of public instruction. Charter groups also helped elect Democrat Anna Caballero and former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra to reclaim the seat he lost two years ago to a union frontwoman. California Teachers Association president Eric Heinsfrets that the freshman legislators could have a long-term impact.

One of Mrs. DeVos’s tasks will be leveraging her bully pulpit and federal dollars to extend this progress to the states, where most education money is spent. She will be the most pro-choice secretary since Bill Bennett in the Reagan years, and she is a particular improvement over George W. Bush’s secretary Margaret Spellings. The National Education Association union blew a gasket at Mrs. DeVos’s appointment Wednesday, which qualifies as high praise.

Mrs. DeVos will have to study up quickly on higher education, where the ObamaAdministration has done so much harm. This means revisiting rules on for-profit colleges and especially the destructive “guidance” on enforcing Title IX that has forced schools to jettison due process for accused students and faculty.

The union and progressive backlash will be ferocious, so it’s good that Mr. Trump has picked a nominee in Mrs. DeVos who knows how to fight and to make the moral case for reform.

Trump’s School-Choice Fight

September 19, 2016

His plan to let money follow the child is a moral and political winner.

 

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sept. 17.ENLARGE
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sept. 17. PHOTO: REUTERS

If Donald Trump knew that promoting school choice would cause such a ruckus on the left, maybe he’d have weighed in sooner. The Republican nominee has found a winning issue by pitching a plan to “provide school choice to every disadvantaged student in America.” Amen.

During a visit to the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, Mr. Trump proposed a $20 billion block grant for states by redirecting federal education money to support charter schools and vouchers. He also endorsed merit pay for teachers and said he’d support local candidates who champion school choice.

Most of the $50 billion or so that the federal government spends on K-12 education is targeted to particular programs like teacher training, and rural and STEM education. About $14 billion in Title I funds are earmarked for disadvantaged students. However, this money doesn’t follow kids to private schools, and states often shortchange charter schools.

Mr. Trump wants to let states use federal funds to boost voucher awards, so parents rather than governments get to choose where the money goes. As he noted in Cleveland, “there is no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly.” Judging by the panicky reaction on the left, you’d think he’d proposed eliminating public education.

Hillary Clinton said his block-grant plan would “decimate public schools across America.” Yet $20 billion is merely 3% of what states spend on K-12 education each year and less than the increase in school spending in California since 2012. By the way, charters are public schools—freed of union control.

Mrs. Clinton is showing how far left she has moved on education. President Obama has been hostile to vouchers; recall former Attorney General Eric Holder’s efforts to shut down Louisiana’s voucher program that principally benefits poor black kids. But at least Mr. Obama supported charters, while Mrs. Clinton is now openly hostile to these reform public schools.

Unions and their friends are trying to deflect attention from Mr. Trump’s speech and minority outreach by saying the charter school where he announced his plan received a failing grade on Ohio’s school-progress report card last year. But the charter flunked due to a switch in state tests last year that caused student scores to slump nearly everywhere in the state.

In 2014 about 71% of third graders at Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy were proficient in reading. On the new test 55% rated as proficient. Yet the share of students at Cleveland Arts who scored proficient was still more than twice as high as at Harvey Rice Elementary (which has a similar demographic makeup) down the block. That school got an A on student growth.

It’s ironic that progressives are howling about the charter’s performance on standardized tests, which they usually insist are a poor indicator of school and teacher quality. Why is it that the only schools that unions believe should be held accountable for student performance are those run by their competition? That’s a question Mr. Trump should ask from here to November.

Poor Children Need a New Brown v. Board of Education

August 29, 2016

Students deserve federal protection from the twisted logic of tenure rules that undermine learning.

By THEODORE J. BOUTROUS JR. and JOSHUA S. LIPSHUTZ
Aug. 28, 2016 5:50 p.m. ET
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The California Supreme Court announced Aug. 22 that it would not hear Vergara v. California, a landmark case fighting for the educational rights of public-school students. The court’s unwillingness even to consider an issue that Justice Goodwin Liu called “one of the most consequential to the future of California” demonstrates why the federal courts must intervene and recognize that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a fundamental right to education.

Julia Macias, 13, a plaintiff in Vergara v. California, in Los Angeles, June 10. ENLARGE
Julia Macias, 13, a plaintiff in Vergara v. California, in Los Angeles, June 10. PHOTO: NANCY PASTOR/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In Vergara, nine students challenged teacher-tenure and dismissal laws that make it nearly impossible for school districts to remove grossly ineffective teachers from the classroom. We were part of the team, along with our partner former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who represented the student plaintiffs. After an eight-week bench trial in 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down the statutes under the state constitution because their twisted logic is “unfathomable” and they inflict harm so severe that it “shocks the conscience.”

Judge Treu’s decision attracted national attention. Then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared that the decision “presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.”

The state of California and California’s two largest teachers unions appealed. In its decision, the California Court of Appeal acknowledged that the laws are a “problem,” agreed that they likely lead to “grossly ineffective teachers being in the educational system,” and described the situation as “deplorable.” The court sided with the unions anyway.

The case seemed destined for the California Supreme Court, but on Aug. 22 the court declined to hear the case by a vote of 4-3. Pursuant to its ordinary procedures, the court did not explain why. Yet two justices took the extraordinary step of issuing dissenting opinions decrying the majority’s failure to act. Justice Liu wrote that “[t]he nine schoolchildren who brought this action, along with the millions of children whose educational opportunities are affected every day by the challenged statutes, deserve to have their claims heard by this state’s highest court.” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar described the laws as “staggering failures that threaten to turn the right to education for California schoolchildren into an empty promise.”
California’s refusal to protect its young citizens has made federal protection essential. Public education meets the U.S. Supreme Court’s fundamental-right test, as articulated in Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), because it is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Laws that impair that right should be subject to strict scrutiny under the Constitution’s due-process and equal-protection clauses.

Public education has been a fundamental pillar of U.S. society since the nation’s founding, when the Continental Congress set aside public lands “to support a system of schools in a state.” As the Supreme Court put it in 1954’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling: “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education.”

Two decades after Brown, the Supreme Court in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) held that education is not a fundamental right in the context of school funding. But it expressly left open the possibility that a right to education might be recognized in another situation. In Papasan v. Allain (1986), the court made clear that whether education is a fundamental right is “not yet definitively settled.”

Such a right would not be an open invitation for federal courts to manage schools or for litigants to bring every education policy question to federal court. Rather, it would protect children across the country against state laws and policies that actively and knowingly deprive them of essential educational opportunities and create egregious inequality, like the California statutes in Vergara.

The day after the denial of review in Vergara, we filed a case in Connecticut federal court, Martinez v. Malloy. We argue for a federal constitutional right to challenge laws that force inner-city children to attend schools that the state knows are failing to provide a minimally acceptable education. These laws are especially cruel because Connecticut has some terrific public schools, including in urban centers.

Magnet schools and public charter schools achieve outstanding results for students. Yet Connecticut has defied reason and imposed a moratorium on magnet schools and an effective cap on charter schools. The state also punishes high-quality public schools that accept transfer students from failing schools. Inner-city kids have to win a lottery to gain access to decent schools.

In Brown, the Supreme Court described education as the “very foundation of good citizenship,” and proclaimed that the “opportunity of an education . . . is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” The federal courts should transform these powerful words into a reality and enforce the fundamental right of children to education in this country.

Messrs. Boutrous and Lipshutz, partners at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, are counsel for the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California and Martinez v. Malloy, and for Students Matter, the nonprofit sponsor of both lawsuits.

Hillary Clinton’s School Choice

August 1, 2016

WSJ Review & Outlook

She used to support charters. Now she’s for the union agenda.

No one would call the 2016 election a battle of ideas, but it will have policy consequences. So it’s worth noting the sharp left turn by Hillary Clinton and Democrats against education reform and the charter schools she and her husband championed in the 1990s.

Mrs. Clinton recently promised a National Education Association (NEA) assembly higher pay, student-loan write-offs, less testing and universal pre-K. She had only this to say about charter schools, which are free from union rules: “When schools get it right, whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working” and “share it with schools across America.”

The crowd booed, so Mrs. Clinton pivoted to deriding “for-profit charter schools,” a fraction of the market whose grave sin is contracting with a management company. Cheering resumed. When she later addressed the other big teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), she began with an attack on for-profit charters.

We remember when Mrs. Clinton wasn’t so easily intimidated by unions. Bill Clinton’s grant program took the movement from a few schools to thousands. In Mrs. Clinton’s 1996 memoir, “It Takes a Village,” she wrote that she favored “promoting choice among public schools, much as the President’s Charter Schools Initiative encourages.” And here’s Mrs. Clinton in 1998: “The President believes, as I do, that charter schools are a way of bringing teachers and parents and communities together.”

But now Mrs. Clinton needs the support of the Democratic get-out-the-vote operation known as teacher unions, which loathe charter schools that operate without unions. The AFT endorsed Mrs. Clinton 16 months before Election Day, and the NEA followed.

Shortly after, in a strange coincidence, Mrs. Clinton began repeating union misinformation: “Most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids,” she said on a South Carolina campaign stop in November. But Mrs. Clinton used to know that nearly all charter schools select students by lottery and are by law not allowed to discriminate. The schools tend to crop up in urban areas where traditional options are worst. A recent study from Stanford University showed that charters better serve low-income children, minority students and kids who are learning English.

There’s an irony in Mrs. Clinton’s pitch that schools should simply share best practices. In 2005 the United Federation of Teachers started a charter school in Brooklyn, N.Y., to prove that unions weren’t holding up success. The school rejected the hallmarks of charter schools like New York’s Success Academy: order, discipline and other concepts progressives view as oppressive. Principals, for instance, were renamed “school leaders.” So how’s that experiment working out? Grades K-8 didn’t meet state standards last year and closed.

Mrs. Clinton’s switcheroo follows the pro-union turn of the Democratic Party platform. This year’s original draft was at least mildly pro-reform, but the final version opposes using test scores to evaluate teachers, encourages parents to opt out of testing for their kids, and endorses multiple restrictions on charters that would make them much less effective.

The education planks caused Peter Cunningham, an assistant secretary in President Obama’s Education Department, to lament that the platform “affirms an education system that denies its shortcomings and is unwilling to address them.” He called it “a step backwards” that will hurt “low-income black and Hispanic children” in particular.

In this election year of bad policy choices, the Democratic retreat from school choice and accountability is the most dispiriting.

Detroit’s Public School Plague

January 23, 2016

A teacher walkout highlights the need for radical reform.

Jan. 22, 2016 5:55 p.m. ET
The Wall Street Journal

As if Flint’s water crisis wasn’t bad enough for urban Michigan, on Wednesday 88 of Detroit’s 100 public schools shut down, after 800 some teachers called in sick purportedly to protest their abject working conditions. Many Motown schools are a picture of poverty, but the root of the rot is the lack of accountability for failure.

Unions orchestrated Wednesday’s teacher “sick-out,” the latest of more than a half dozen this school year, to coincide with President Obama’s visit touting the White House auto bailout. Their goal is to draw political steam from Flint, flog supposed Republican racial animus—95% of students are black or Latino—and impel a bailout.

Media accounts of Detroit schools have documented rodent infestation, caving ceilings, black mold and putrid air. Emergency manager Darnell Earley, who previously ran Flint until being redeployed this month to Detroit by Governor Rick Snyder, has become a scapegoat. But the collapse of Detroit’s schools has been decades in the making.

Enrollment has fallen by two-thirds since 2000 due to population flight and charter-school expansion. Public schools have lost about 71,000 students in a decade while charters have gained 23,000. About 53% of Detroit students attend charters compared to 20% in 2006.

Detroit Public Schools have $3.5 billion in liabilities including $1.3 billion for pension and retirement health benefits. Since 2009 the public school system has been under the guardianship of a state emergency manager. Although 100 schools have since closed, deficits persist. This year’s $215 million hole is nearly a third of the district’s general fund revenues.

The district has repeatedly borrowed to balance its budget in lieu of making capital repairs and improvements. Legacy costs have diverted money from instruction, while good teachers have left for charters that offer more freedom and class discipline. Seniority-based layoffs force out promising young teachers while tenure protects the worst. Collective bargaining agreements block reforms like longer school days. The union contract also prohibits strikes, so instead teachers call in sick.

No surprise then that Detroit has ranked at the bottom of 21 large urban public school districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2009. Last year only 4% of Detroit eighth graders were proficient in math and 7% in reading. A Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcome study last year found that Detroit charter students on average gained 65 days of learning in math and 50 days in reading per year over their public school counterparts.

Mr. Snyder has proposed spinning off Detroit Public Schools’ debt, which would be paid down over time with state aid. A new debt-free district would be created with state funds. Financial engineering and more aid may forestall bankruptcy, but they won’t improve math scores.

Detroit schools need radical reform, and the expiration of the teachers’ collective-bargaining agreement in June gives state guardians an opening. One model is New Orleans, which converted nearly all of its schools to charters after Hurricane Katrina. Strict accountability should require low-performing charters to close. Detroit’s poverty is real, but it doesn’t excuse continuing educational failure.

The Education Gangs of Los Angeles

September 14, 2015

 

Meet the decorated former Green Beret

who is rallying Los Angeles parents to fight

the unions and reform the worst public schools,

one school at a time.

PHOTO: KEN FALLIN

Anaheim, Calif.

When most people think of this quintessential California suburb, the Angels baseball team or Disneyland probably comes to mind. But a five-minute drive from the “happiest place on earth” takes you to Palm Lane Elementary, ground zero in a fight between teachers unions and parents who are trying to fix California’s broken public schools. The conflict—as so often in American education—boils down to unionized teachers trying to stop minority children from attending charter schools.

Ninety percent of Palm Lane students come from low-income families. About 85% are Latino, and more than half aren’t native English speakers. Palm Lane has been on the California Education Department’s list of underperforming schools since 2003. In 2013 a mere 38% of students scored proficient or better in English on state tests. And Palm Lane is hardly an exception in the area: Four other elementary schools in Anaheim rank even lower on the state’s Academic Performance Index.

But Alfonso Flores is leading a grass-roots insurgency against the union-controlled regime at Palm Lane. The former teacher and father of four kids who attend public schools in Hesperia has used the state’s “parent trigger” law, passed in 2010, to force changes at a half-dozen schools in California. The law stipulates that if a majority of parents at a struggling school sign a petition, they can compel changes in school management or personnel. Sometimes, the parents contract with a charter-school operator. In one case, they hired a new principal. Parents have also used the law as a negotiating tool to force the district to make improvements like adding more staff.

As the new school year was getting started, Mr. Flores sat down with me in the park next to Park Lane that has served as a meeting place and training ground for parents in the trigger campaign. The 45-year-old decorated Gulf War veteran has plenty of stories to tell about doing battle with teachers unions that bring heavy artillery to every fight.

“It’s grass-roots,” he says of parent-trigger efforts, “and that’s what scares the teachers unions.”

Mr. Flores, a self-described “anchor baby” of Mexican immigrants, knows firsthand the value of escaping bad schools. As a child in the 1970s, he spent three hours daily on a bus trekking to and from a school in the San Fernando Valley under the Los Angeles Unified School District’s desegregation plan. Busing to achieve racial integration is hardly optimal, but Mr. Flores says it did allow him to avoid the horrendous schools in the Los Angeles inner city.

As a senior in high school, he signed up with the U.S. Army and after graduating served tours in Colombia, the Persian Gulf and Somalia. “I wanted a way to thank my country for allowing my parents to bring me to this great nation,” he explains. In 10 years the Green Beret earned a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts, and he lost a kidney after being wounded in the 1993 rescue mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, that was depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down.”

During his military service, Mr. Flores says, he was struck by his fellow soldiers’ deficient educations. They had to “redo grammar school” because they “couldn’t write a simple report,” he recalls. “The Pentagon has complained about high-school kids not able to pass the ASVAB”—the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

After an honorable discharge in 1998, he got his teaching credential from California State University at Dominguez Hills. His first teaching job was at Normandie Avenue, one of the worst elementary schools in L.A. One teacher, Mr. Flores recalls, would watch television while students filled in coloring sheets. A new principal tried to raise standards, he says, but if she entered a classroom without the teacher’s permission, she would get slapped with a union grievance.

In 2007, after being named a district teacher of the year, Mr. Flores was hired as the founding principal of the Global Education Academy, a charter school in South Los Angeles with an almost entirely black and Latino student population. Although most teachers were young and inexperienced, the charter far outperformed neighboring public schools. In 2008, 88% of its students scored proficient or advanced in math, compared with 37% districtwide.

The key to improving student performance, Mr. Flores says, was engaging parents. At most public schools, “parents are treated with hostility,” but at charters, administrators and teachers tend to “embrace parents as partners.” Teachers unions and their liberal allies blame poverty for bad schools, but Mr. Flores calls that an insult to good teachers who are helping poor children succeed: “Poverty is not an issue.”

In 2011 Mr. Flores joined the nonprofit Parent Revolution, inspired by the group’s role in California’s first parent-trigger campaign, at McKinley Elementary in Compton. McKinley parents wanted a high-performing charter operator to take over the failing school but were stymied by the teachers union, which had joined forces with the school district.

The union tactics at McKinley included requiring parents to show up at the school during the workday with a photo ID—a good way to scare off illegal immigrants—to verify their signatures. The trigger petition failed after a lengthy court battle, but Mr. Flores says the injustice propelled him to enlist as a parent organizer. “Before you begin a petition drive, you have to start a parent organization,” Mr. Flores says. Parents “have to be aware of how the system works and how the system is broken.”

For instance, “parents are unaware that principals don’t have power to dismiss or even hire their own staff. Districts do a really good job of keeping parents away from all of this information,” Mr. Flores notes. “Once they learn, it agitates them even more.”

But the biggest challenge is collecting signatures while being barraged by the unions. In every petition campaign, he says, “they use the same accusations and playbook.” Two standbys are false charges that the petition organizers are bribing parents to sign and that the people gathering the signatures are paid by outside groups.

The unions hit the “outsider” label hard, Mr. Flores says, alleging that petition organizers “have a political agenda—that we’re trying to privatize education.” Another union tactic: Overplay the collateral damage, telling parents that a petition could force the school to close. When all else fails, the unions try to junk the petition signatures. In the parent-trigger drive Mr. Flores helped organize at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto in 2012, the school board invalidated nearly 100 signatures. But a state judge ordered the district to accept the petition and allow the charter conversion.

Compared with fighting unions, Mr. Flores’s encounters with local gang leaders have been a relative breeze.

“In every campaign I’ve been a part of, you have situations where you have to respect the community,” Mr. Flores says. “That means if the local community leader is a minister, you meet with the minister. In Watts, it was a gang leader.” That was three years ago, he says, when Latino parents at Weigand Avenue Elementary were seeking to oust the principal. A black pastor said he had to get permission from a local gang to mobilize parents, and he set up a meeting at the gang leader’s apartment.

“There were all types of weapons throughout the house. I remember opening the door and that distinctive smell of marijuana,” Mr. Flores recalls. “I was afraid because I was aware of the turf battles—the fact that I was Latino and they were African-American.”

But the only triggers that came up in the meeting were of the parental variety. To Mr. Flores’s amazement, the gang members supported the Weigand Avenue takeover. One, he says, “happened to be a former student at the school and said, ‘You need to do this for the future generation of kids, because I am a product of this school.’ He was very self-aware.” While parents gathered signatures, Mr. Flores says, the gang “would egg us on and tell us they were sending parents our way.”

The petition at Weigand succeeded, but Mr. Flores says he grew frustrated by what he perceived as an inefficient use of resources at Parent Revolution. In 2014 he left to launch his own school-reform outfit, Excellent Educational Solutions.

Later that year, he got a call from Gloria Romero—the former Democratic state Senate majority leader, who co-authored the parent-trigger law—about organizing a campaign at Palm Lane in Anaheim.

Palm Lane had cycled through five principals in three years. Mr. Flores says the catalyst for the petition drive at the school was the removal of a principal who had “started making teachers accountable” by taking steps like requiring them to assign homework. Teachers howled, and soon the school board reassigned the principal—to work as a teacher at another school.

Parents went public with their outrage. Ms. Romero proposed that Mr. Flores help mobilize them for a petition drive. When presented with various trigger options, parents chose to go for a charter-school conversion.

Mr. Flores used the park outside the school for daily parent meetings. Some mornings, he says, “we had to be out here at 6:30” to catch parents before they went to work. With a three-member team and $60,000 budget, Mr. Flores gave parents a tutorial in public-school dysfunction.

“Parents don’t know about API”—the state’s Academic Performance Index—“but they know when their kids don’t have homework, it is an issue,” he says.

Once again, the union pulled out its playbook. Signature gatherers were accused of bribing parents with iPads. The Anaheim City School District superintendent wrote a letter warning parents: “It has been reported to us that there are people in our community who have been paid by an organization to gather parent signatures for a petition that could completely change the way some of our schools are run.”

The parents were unmoved. More than 60% signed the petition—but the district threw out 133 of the 488 signatures. The matter moved to the courts, and in July a state superior court judge reprimanded the district’s conduct as “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and unfair” and ordered the school board to accept the petition.

The school board has appealed and doubled the contract for its legal firm, to $678,000. The fight has garnered plenty of headlines in California, but state leaders like Gov. Jerry Brown and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson have been notably silent.

Mr. Flores notes that the Democrat-dominated legislature in Sacramento has made a point of spending big on schools with a high concentration of disadvantaged students, with little to show for it. “You could throw millions of dollars into these schools,” he says, “and if there is no accountability, you have the same situation.”

When it comes to education reform, Mr. Flores says, “parents shouldn’t be leading this, it should be the state.” But given the stakes, he adds, sounding a militant note, sometimes “you have to force change.”

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.

The Softer Side of “No Excuses” at KIPP Academy

October 25, 2013

There are many excellent charter schools in Texas, but KIPP Academy, being one of the oldest “No Excuses” charter schools, has had the most said about it, both positive and negative.  This Education Next article is an accurate look inside a KIPP Academy in New Orleans.

Enjoy!

Survey: Black Voters Support Parental Choice In Education

October 14, 2013

Sometimes it takes a little while for stories to find their way to us. Such is the case today.

Back in July, Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) released a report “A Survey Report on Education Reform, Charter Schools, and the Desire for Parental Choice in the Black Community.”

Among the findings was this tidbit:

Parental choice in education as a fundamental concept deeply resonated with Black voters who completed the BAEO survey. Between 85-89% in each state agreed that government should provide parents with as many choices as possible to ensure that their children receive a good education.

Parental choice in education knows no limitations. Only the usual suspects oppose parental choice, those who steadfastly oppose reform every time it’s mentioned. In a case such as this, where basically 85 to 90 percent of those surveyed say they support parental choice, we should not relent in pressing our message of freedom and education to anyone with willing ears.