Friday, May 6, 2011

Fighting Charter Schools, One Legislator At A Time

The California Teachers Association is attempting to change the state’s charter school law so that districts have more power to reject charter petitions. However, the bill, AB 1172, failed to win support from the Assembly Education Committee on Wednesday and now requires major changes by its author, Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, if he has any hope of seeing it go to full vote, according to John Fensterwald - Educated Guess.

The bill terrified charter companies, which rallied their troops and heavily lobbied to get the bill rejected. If it passed, as written, the bill would have clearly limited the profitability of privatizing public schools.

The CTA’s intent was good. The bill would allow districts to reject charters based on the district’s financial condition. Charter school companies are funded through tax dollars, like traditional public schools. However, they often get additional money from the state and from foundations. More importantly, when students transfer from district to charter schools, the funding follows the student to the charter school. Thus, charter schools sap money from local school districts at a time when most are struggling with large deficits. If enough charter schools open up in or near a district, there is the potential for them to draw so many students that the district loses it financial viability. This is most clearly exemplified in Detroit where, due to flight from the inner city and increasing numbers of charter schools, the district has closed half of its schools and is set to raise class sizes to 62 students per teacher.

Fensterwald writes that there have been other attempts to give districts the option to veto charter schools based on their financial state. However, he suggests that this bill is a “full-scale assault” on the charter law due to its other anti-charter provisions. This, of course, is a gross exaggeration that serves only to perpetuate the myth that teachers unions are opposed to the interests of children and families. A full-scale assault on the charter law would be an attempt to repeal it, rather than modify it, or an organizing campaign opposing charter schools. In reality, the CTA has expressed support for both parental choice and for charter schools.

An important question is why the bill could not even make it past committee. Only two Democrats on the 11-member committee voted to support the bill, which ought to make the CTA question the efficacy of its long-standing policy of buying Democratic lawmakers. The CTA prefers to play politics than to do any real organizing. They spend millions of dollars each year supporting candidates who they think will do their bidding in the legislature, often only to be disappointed later when that candidate decides not to vote their way or when they simply can’t get enough votes. Mendoza would be an example of the latter, having been an elementary school teacher and a representative for both the CTA and National Education Association before turning to politics. Even with its relatively large war chest, the CTA cannot really compete with private business for the loyalty of most politicians. Furthermore, legislators are particularly sensitive to propaganda that threatens their chances for reelection. Hence, they refuse to sign on to anything that sounds like it could be soft on crime, raise taxes, kill jobs, or harm children

Rather than spending millions in hopes of getting a few of their guys elected, who may or may not vote their way, the CTA would be much wiser using those same resources organizing and agitating their members and creating propaganda to counter the hysteria that our schools are filled with lazy, incompetent teachers who only want government handouts. They need to convince the public that the charter school companies, especially the corporate ones, are the real beggars looking for government handouts, that they are the ones with selfish interests who do not care about well-being of students.

Fensterwald argues that an appeals process is necessary because there is an inherent conflict in having school trustees decide on charter proposals when they may view them as a theft of their students. Yet it is a theft of their students and it does reduce their ability to provide a quality education to students who choose to stay in the district. So why shouldn’t they be able to try and stop it? One could even argue that the charter school companies have an unfair advantage, since they can take district students and state funds and use them to turn a profit, whereas the districts can do virtually nothing to bring in more students or increase their funding. They have the advantage of having more resources for advertising, which helps them suck even more students away from districts. They also have the advantage of being able to hire non-union staff at lower wages and use the savings for advertising and fancy equipment and programs that make them seem even more attractive than district schools. Unlike district schools, they can set their own admission standards and they can expel students more easily than districts can, thus allowing them to skim the top students from districts, which helps boost their test scores and desirability, while lowering those of district schools.

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