Thursday, November 11, 2010


Op-Ed By Doug Lasken in the Daily Breeze |

November 12, 2010 - Imagine you are a time traveler who leaves Earth sometime in the early post-World War II years and comes back to watch the recent midterm election. What might surprise you most about current politics?

For me, it would be that public school systems across the country are nearing bankruptcy, but the candidates did not talk about it.

And why should they? It's hard to find parents who think there's an urgent reason to save public education, now that charters, where every teacher is wonderful, are all the rave. Even middle-class and low-income parents, who have the most to gain from public education, seem to think its destruction is in order.

So the politicians have found that the best way to get votes is to ignore the collapse of school districts and focus instead on how terrible teachers can be. Getting rid of bad teachers is the new national rallying cry. Maybe getting rid of schools is seen as a way to get rid of bad teachers.

The last national cry of alarm about American public education was in 1983, the year I started teaching for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

That year, the Reagan administration's report "A Nation at Risk" highlighted the failings of American public education and made recommendations to repair it. The recommendations, notably, did not include rerouting children out of public school.

Many of the recommendations were implemented, including expensive ones like creating rigorous standards and assessments, and paying teachers "professionally competitive, market-sensitive and performance-based" salaries. The first two salary proposals were addressed, but there was no move toward basing pay on performance. Now we have that on the table, but we are accompanying it with the wholesale destruction of the system.

This is not an exaggeration. I retired in June 2009 with a decent, though not amazing, pension (70 percent of my salary) and good health coverage. The September after my retirement, dozens of my colleagues in the English department and across all departments were laid off, and class sizes rose from 20 students to 40.

Since then, the budget ax has fallen on plant managers, nurses, librarians and many more teachers. The experience at my school has been mirrored across LAUSD and throughout the country. There was a time when we might have deemed this a national emergency.

But what do we have, in terms of public concern, to compare with "A Nation at Risk"? We have a near-total acceptance, across the political spectrum, that our public schools need to be punished for their crimes, allowed to perish if necessary, while our children will be saved by charter schools. Teacher pensions and benefits are vilified as some sort of greedy power play, paying out a princely ransom to people who don't deserve it.

What gives? It's time to take a close look at the factors behind this remarkable change in public temper, and to assess its validity. Below I address two concerns: incompetent teachers and charter schools.

1. Incompetent Teachers. They do exist. I've worked with teachers who did not know their subject matter and could not control a class, who were, sometimes, awful people who should not be around children. (Most teachers, by the way, do not fit any part of this description.) These incompetent teachers, if they last two years, are protected by tenure, and rarely is one fired. Unions have turned a deaf ear to the problem and, in so doing, have brought the firestorm upon themselves.

So why am I not for a mass exodus to charters? Simple: The situation can be fixed. We don't need "Superman," whoever that's supposed to be. We need, first, union leadership with enough guts to admit the problem. Then we need strong leadership at a higher level. In California, this should be Gov.-elect Brown, who has more sway with the unions than any other top office holder in the state.

No one knows how to ensure a fair process for reviewing teacher tenure, but that's because no one, at least in California, has tried it, not because it's impossible.

2. Charter Schools: There are, without question, many excellent charter schools, and there are many children who are being saved by a charter school. The research shows, however, that there is nothing inherently good about charters. In other words, their legal and educational structure does not in itself promote sound education.

Charters do have more freedom than public schools to innovate, but this gives no guarantee for any particular child who enters a charter that his or her education will be superior to what is offered in the neighborhood public school.

Consider the numbers. There are about 700,000 children in LAUSD, for instance. There are charters springing up everywhere to accommodate the disaffected, but does anyone suppose that there will be enough excellent charters in Los Angeles for 700,000 thousand children? Let's be real. We need to maintain and improve public schools while we allow charters to thrive.

It is time to get tough with teachers unions, but let's do it like a rational society. I hate to end with a cliche but, as any English teacher will tell you, cliches are popular because they say something well: Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  • Doug Lasken is a retired Los Angeles Unified teacher, a freelancer and a consultant. Write him at

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