The pitched political battle over charter schools no longer serves teachers or students

By Wendy Zacuto

The author is a former LAUSD teacher and charter school principal who runs an education consulting firm in Playa del Rey.

I don’t pretend to understand every nuance of public education, but I can tell you from personal experience that teachers’ strikes are a mess. I’ve viewed the morass of LAUSD from many vantage points: as a K-12 student, as a parent of children who attended an LAUSD magnet school, as a teacher in the district for seven years, and as a charter school principal.

As a student in the 1960s, I received a pretty good education in local public schools. Westchester High was overcrowded and academic counseling was less than perfect, but somehow my friends and I all went on to attend college and lead fruitful lives.

Later, as a parent of an incoming LAUSD kindergartener, I was refused the right to visit my local school. When pressed, I observed that watching educational TV consumed a half-hour of a 2.5-hour kindergarten day. Not on my watch!

When my kids transitioned to attending school for a full day, I began teaching at a local neighborhood school. But when the gifted principal who hired me was replaced after retirement by one who could not pass the principal’s exam, the school spiraled into disarray. I transferred to the magnet school my children attended and taught there four years, observing the night-and-day difference between a school governed by district policies and one with a bit more localized control.

In 1989, as a member of United Teachers of Los Angeles, I went on strike for higher pay. The school was split between teachers who were willing to forgo earnings and those who knew they would benefit from the strike effort but continued to cross the picket lines each day. We deserved the pay raise and we struck for that compensation, but we did nothing to address the other problems rampant in the district.

As of Tuesday, UTLA has dropped many of its demands, maintaining that class size reduction is a key issue for calling a strike. Large class sizes in traditional LAUSD schools are among the issues fueling the flight to charter schools, and the obvious truth is that smaller class sizes make for better teaching and learning environments.

Perhaps LAUSD should open more of its own charter schools to reduce class sizes, but UTLA would have to drop its illogical roadblocks to charter schools. As early as 1989, I could see that Los Angeles educational leadership was clearly a binary political system: the LAUSD Board of Education vs. UTLA.

LAUSD is simply too big to be sensitive to the needs of all children and teachers. Education is not scalable. Purchasing might be, but the day-to-day decisions needed to nurture teaching and learning is not. The further decision makers are from children and teachers, the less effective their decisions tend to be.

UTLA does not, in the end, represent teachers. UTLA represents its leadership and provides a political adversary for LAUSD. Until LAUSD and UTLA become true partners, children and teachers will continue to be fodder for the continued antagonism that supports a decaying status quo. UTLA has potential for crafting solutions to LAUSD’s challenges. I’m grateful for the current discussion of class size, and God knows we need more teaching and less testing! But UTLA insists on perceiving all charter schools as the enemy instead of looking for the opportunities they provide.

Charter schools are neither inherently good nor bad. Some are outstanding; some should be closed at once. The late American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker envisioned these experimental public schools as leading the way for school reform. It’s unfortunate that the movement has been co-opted by private industry, but the basic idea — along the lines of many magnet schools — was intended to occur in harmony with traditional public schools.

Our current UTLA leadership positions charter schools as a threat, ultimately pitting the union against the school board in a pitched political battle that’s not helping teachers or families. We need new union leadership that partners with the LAUSD board and our new superintendent to improve all schools, as all of our city’s teachers, parents and children deserve.