With classes closed for at least two weeks, which will most likely be extended out into April and May now, the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) is currently facing many of the same issues that are plaguing schools nationwide. Questions over tests, grades, graduations, recruitment, and keeping schools coronavirus free are only a few such issues. But long-festering issues will also come back to face the school district – foremost among them being whether the LAUSD will stay with union teachers in schools or if they move closer to the charter school model.
The California Globe takes a look at what the options are for the LAUSD and the one school board election that may just have the deciding vote.
Charter schools and union schools
For the past decade, teachers unions and charter school groups have gone head-to-head over adding more charter schools into the LAUSD system. Every election, both sides routinely spend millions of dollars, with charter schools slowly getting more of an edge.
Currently there are 277 charter schools in the LAUSD system, as opposed to having over well over a thousand schools in total. Charter school enrollment has been going up, with non-charter public school enrollment going down. Last years LA public school strike brought things to a boiling point. Union teachers went on strike for a raise, lower class sizes, and a few other guarantees to keep charter schools at bay. While they did receive raises and promised lower class sizes, they also received layoffs following a new budget later that year, derailing part of the gains they made.
“It sucked,” said ‘Maria’, a former LAUSD teacher who was a member of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). “The teachers all said they were in it together, but instead they screwed all the younger teachers. They didn’t make the firings merit-based, but rather last hired first fired.”
“They didn’t even try and question it. It just happened a few months after the strike.”
And like many who were let go they went to the schools in LA County that were hiring. Charter schools.
“They made the problem completely worse for themselves. Now the union has to contend with even more charter schools and teachers in charter schools,” added Maria.
“The problem got worse then,” admitted education policy advisor Mark Steiner. “The big thing is over unions. Charter schools don’t have union teachers, which weakens the union but also gives those teachers less say. Public school teachers are unionized, can perform strikes, but they also have to pay dues and are scaring away many younger teachers. There are several other differences, like how they are run and questions of standards and performance. But in LA, for the LAUSD, this is the huge divide. And it’s getting closer each year.”
It’s also sparking elections over board members and policies, as the district is making a slow move to more charter schools.
Elections and scandals
The LAUSD primary elections earlier this month showed a largely pro-incumbent bend. All but one race were blowouts.
However, the 3rd District race was shown to be a battle, and sets the stage for a runoff battle. Embattered school board member and former principal Scott Schmerelson will be facing off against Marilyn Koziatek, a charter-school backed candidate quickly gaining steam in the district.
Charter schools reportedly spent over $1 million on attack ads against Schmerelson, which Schmerelson called “anti-Semitic.”
Brent Smiley, Schmerelson’s campaign manager, shot back saying “They ran a candidate who has no business being on the school board. And so they don’t have any other way to win other than to purely fabricate all this about Scott.”
This comment was then refuted by former LAUSD board member Caprice Young, who responded on Twitter exclaiming “Seriously? Is that because she is a woman, a parent, or committed to great schools?”
The election gets further muddled by an ongoing scandal of Schmerelson reportedly misreporting his own personal finances. Schmerelson quickly responded to the situation during the election.
“Before joining the Board in 2015, I didn’t completely understand how corporate politics and the unimaginable resources of corporate interests like JUUL, Walmart, and Netflix impact children,” said Schmerelson earlier this year.
“I make no excuses for not exercising better judgment about several of my past investments that I no longer own. I publicly pledge to scour my retirement portfolio and any future investments to include only socially responsible stocks that reflect my values and better serve our children, teachers, school communities and the future of public education.”
With a charter-school backed candidate entering her first election with no previous experience and a union-backed former principal still dodging a scandal, the LAUSD’s future on choosing unions or charter schools rides largely on this race.
The LAUSD has many more issues: Low academic performances, a higher number of English language learner classes, buildings in need of repair, overcrowding, and the aforementioned budget cuts are all taking a toll on the district.
Some big decisions have already been made, including new school options and not backing the now-failed Proposition 13 because of lowered developer fees. But the biggest one after the coronavirus makes its rounds is where the system should go.
The issue over charter schools is on hiatus for now. But with upcoming school issues and an election that could bring in a vote for the unions or a vote for charter schools, it will come roaring back very soon.