How Charter Schools Lost Democrats’ Support

Apr 2, 2019 by

by J. Brian Charles –

Last December, after two years of negotiation that hadn’t produced a contract, the United Teachers of Los Angeles took to the streets. Thousands of them marched in their red shirts past the glimmering towers of revitalized downtown Los Angeles. They finished their march at The Broad, a contemporary art museum where union leaders held a rally before dismissing the crowd. Their demands were clear: smaller class sizes and a limit to the explosive growth of charter schools.

The final destination was as deliberate as the demands. The target of their rage was Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist who is a modern-day Medici in Los Angeles. He backs the arts. His bid to buy the Los Angeles Times was widely supported by locals. And his museum attracts nearly a million visitors a year. But as labor negotiations slowed and then stalled last year, the teachers turned their anger toward the city’s civic hero. The reason was simple: Broad is a passionate supporter of charter schools.

California is home to 1,306 charters — more than any other state in the country. And Los Angeles is the state’s most fertile ground for these schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District has 277 of them. Control of the nation’s second-largest school district rests with its school board, where Broad has wielded influence for years. In the last two election cycles he gave more than $2 million to school board candidates. After the 2017 campaign — the most expensive school board election in the nation’s history — yielded a 4-3 pro-charter majority, Broad’s influence over the school district grew even stronger. The board picked as its new school superintendent Austin Beutner, an investment banker with no experience running a school district or even a school, but with close connections to Broad, who had helped Beutner land a job as L.A.’s deputy mayor. Beutner, like Broad, is a charter supporter, having served on the boards of several charter operations.

With the labor dispute in its second year, Beutner pushed a plan to reshape the school system. He proposed forming 32 networks across the district, meant to foster a decentralization of power. Autonomy would be returned to the schools and, by extension, to parents. But to the powerful teachers union in Los Angeles, Beutner’s plan was a move toward still more charters and to school privatization. “Decentralization is a common refrain in so-called portfolio districts — like New Orleans, Newark and Detroit — cities that are riddled with a patchwork of privatization schemes that do not improve student outcomes,” the union said in a statement released in November. “Clusters of schools compete against each other for resources and support, creating a system of haves and have nots and exacerbating segregation and equity issues.”

Beutner’s plan galvanized the anti-charter forces. Parents joined teachers on the picket lines, swelling the ranks of those who descended on The Broad museum to roughly 50,000 on the day of the march. “The thing Beutner didn’t see,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, “was the overwhelming support of traditional public schools in Los Angeles.”









Eli Broad is one of the nation’s most ardent supporters of charter schools. (AP)

Mayor Eric Garcetti broke the labor stalemate in January, forging a deal between the union and Beutner. The union got a commitment to the smaller class sizes it had long demanded. And the mayor, who had once called for the expansion of charter schools in Los Angeles, got the school board to vote up-or-down on a union-backed resolution asking the state to place a cap on charter schools. In short, Garcetti delivered a win for the teachers in a place where the charter movement had won some of its most significant victories. The school board eventually approved the resolution calling for the charter cap in a 5 to 1 vote. In February, state leaders agreed to form a task force to examine the fiscal impact charter schools have on traditional public school funding. The union claims that charters drain resources from regular public schools.

The concessions by the school district didn’t happen in a vacuum. From coast to coast, the charter movement has seen its political support declining, especially among progressive Democrats. The movement was defeated badly in Massachusetts in 2016 when voters rejected a ballot initiative to lift a state cap on the number of charters. Last year, in contests for governor in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico, Democratic candidates campaigned openly against charter schools. Tony Thurmond overcame a 2-to-1 fundraising deficit to defeat a charter-backed candidate for state superintendent of public instruction in California. More than $50 million was raised in that campaign, and the election split Democrats in the state and nationally. In February, newly elected Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, put forth a proposal to slow and possibly stop the growth of charter schools in the state. Evers, who spent a decade as the Wisconsin schools superintendent, has proposed a freeze on new independent charters for four years and wants to eliminate a program which allows Milwaukee County officials to transform low-performing schools into charters.

continue: How Charter Schools Lost Democrats’ Support

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