The education marketplace concept — a competitive, not comprehensive model — is wrong for public schools
By Karen Wolfe
Last week’s cover story about local schools competing in an evolving education marketplace represents one side of a heated debate. The idea of an education marketplace is an outgrowth of the neo-conservative philosophy that seeks to turn public entities into or over to businesses. Featuring their unique themes or “new-and-improved” models, schools attract customers. Those highest in demand survive. The model warms the public to the idea of privatizing public services.
On the other side, schools are a public good, there to make good citizens for the betterment of a democratic society. In this model, a school serves every child who walks through the gates. If there’s anything like a marketplace, it’s more like TOMS shoes — for every pair bought, another pair is donated to someone in need. Only with public schools, both pairs are worn in the same community.
Plenty of families reject the marketplace framework, where parents are forced to choose among niche programs. They want comprehensive schools, and they want the diversity that comes with them.
Venice High School’s World Languages and Global Studies Magnet is like a liberal arts program. (It’s worth noting that magnets go far beyond competitive themes by utilizing an enrollment formula aimed to cure racial isolation.) With the highest test scores on the entire west side, it is one of LAUSD’s longest-running and most successful magnet programs.
Paul Revere Middle School, too, attracts students from the neighborhoods of Venice and Mar Vista, and exemplifies Westsiders’ desire for well-rounded schools. Some schools are smartly replicating that model. When Stoner Elementary School parents embarked on a school improvement plan, they broadened their offerings to include a music program, a dance program, a STEM lab and a language curriculum. These schools are demonstrating the appeal of comprehensive schools.
Still the marketplace notion is perpetuated as a solution to declining enrollment in our neighborhood schools. However, the real reason enrollment is declining is because of the huge increase in the number of schools on the west side following the approval of dozens of charter schools in the last few years. Pouring a gallon of milk into 20 glasses leaves more room in each glass than if you only filled 10.
It’s true that some of those glasses have gotten shined up; there is some benefit to competition. Charters deserve credit for waking schools and the teachers union up.
But if you have to win a lottery to go to a good school, who is doing the choosing? In most cases, it’s the school. In the education marketplace model, students aren’t customers: they’re currency. The revenue follows them, depleting neighborhood schools of scarce resources.
To follow the metaphor of TOMS shoes, it isn’t just that the purchased shoes go somewhere else — the donated shoes disappear, too. In schools, that means funding for nurses, librarians, assistant principals and smaller class sizes.
LAUSD is making a mistake by pushing neighborhood schools to compete against each other. Schools that resist the pressure are doing a community service and should be rewarded by the district.
When the venerable Beethoven Elementary was pressured to pick a theme, the principal stood up to the school district and continued a comprehensive approach.
Walgrove Elementary should be rewarded, too. Walgrove fully embraces special education students who arrive from dozens of other schools because of Walgrove’s stellar special ed department and the warm acceptance these students experience by the entire Walgrove community.
This inclusion lowers Walgrove’s overall school score, making it appear as if the school is struggling. Walgrove wrestled with the idea of a themed, competitive model but rejected the conversion after a gut-wrenching community process. The school district should increase its support of Walgrove for doing the right thing.
No themed school has faced more community conflict than the Mandarin language immersion program at Broadway Elementary. Permitted by the district to break the rules of enrollment caps other schools are forced to follow, the program sidelined the rest of the school. Now it’s looking for a place of its own, at a cost of over $30 million. But this will leave Broadway nearly empty: classroom inventory on the Prop 39 charter school spreadsheet. LAUSD’s response? Turn Broadway into yet another theme: a Spanish Immersion program. One district official even responded to the alleged assaults at Venice High School by proposing a language program there. The logic is hard to follow.
As a response to charters, LAUSD’s enthusiasm for themed schools is understandable. But it is misguided. While a few charters feature programs not found in district schools — like Ocean Charter’s Waldorf pedagogy and Goethe’s International Baccalaureate program — most simply offer smaller class sizes and an escape from the bureaucracy.
If LAUSD is serious about competing with charters, it needs to allow neighborhood schools to provide what parents are really looking for. That isn’t themes to match every whim. It’s smaller classes, excellent teaching and the services that make a diverse school successful, such as nurses, social workers and librarians.
It might not look flashy on a brochure, but this is what parents are seeking.
Karen Wolfe is a Venice resident and parent of two children who attend LAUSD schools.