Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Op-Ed in the L.A. Daily News by former UTLA President John Perez |

9/13/2011 -- There was a new twist last week in the ongoing story of education reform and United Teachers Los Angeles. Former UTLA President A.J. Duffy announced his plans to start a charter school based on policies he opposed before stepping down two months ago.

Duffy's seeming "conversion" has called into question whether UTLA leaders fight for causes we don't really believe in. As a former union president -- I served before Duffy took office in 2005 -- I have no regrets about having opposed the academic policies of most charter operators and the financial motives of their super-wealthy backers.

I still support charter schools as they were first envisioned, as laboratories where educators could work without fear of failure on new approaches to improve the larger public school system. And, like my UTLA predecessors Day Higuchi and the late Helen Bernstein, I support the idea of union-inspired charters to "field test" the policies we propose in collective bargaining.

That's hardly the picture, though, at most of the 200-plus charter schools carved out of the L.A. Unified School District. According to recent studies, only a handful of charters can meet, much less exceed, student performance at "regular" LAUSD schools like the Woodland Hills Academy, where test scores have gone up 22 percent in the last four years.

Also, charters are even worse than "regular" schools when it comes to what I consider the most serious problem in education today: a staggering teacher dropout rate. Half of all new teachers leave the profession during their first five years on the job, which directly affects the student dropout rate.

The revolving door spins fastest at charters. Look behind their great P.R. veneer and you'll see how charters annually hire young teachers and burn them out, then replace them the following year with a new crop of idealists. How is that good for teachers or students?

Teachers unions, by comparison, have long advocated proven reforms the news media often ignores, such as mentoring all new teachers and peer assistance and review programs. UTLA has also developed several excellent administrative models, including the LEARN public/private partnership.

Today, former UTLA President Higuchi and his wife, Charlotte, are helping to administer a curriculum they helped design at Barack Obama Global Preparatory Academy in South L.A. The rising test scores in Woodland Hills I described earlier are thanks to a school-based management approach led by teachers.

My biggest problem with charters, though, is making common cause with those who would destroy public education. Corporate "angels" like Eli Broad, Bill Gates and Sam Walton are wielding a collection of "reforms" like a baseball bat to crack open America's public school districts like a pi ata. This is nothing less than a massive grab for the billions of dollars used to educate our sons and daughters.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that billionaires attach strings to their financial support, or that privatizing our schools is killing public education. The results would be tragic, however, if teachers and their union leaders misinterpreted the situation and failed to rally parents and the general public to defend one of the pillars of American life.

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