Teachers in Los Angeles Confront Privatization—the Heart of Today’s Neoliberal Conventional Wisdom

Almost a decade ago, I was sitting in the audience at a national meeting when a prominent Democrat endorsed neoliberalism—the idea that the private sector can do better than the government.  I might have expected this speaker to defend government services, but instead he expressed what sounded to me like the conventional wisdom as it might have been voiced at an Aspen Institute cocktail party of the so-called “theory class.”  There was no reasoning, no sense that evidence was necessary. He merely assumed we all agreed: “We can’t support vouchers,” declared the speaker, “but charter schools are OK because they  aren’t really a form of privatization.”

In their book, American Amnesia, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe how such conventional wisdom can somehow become acceptable despite plenty of contradictory evidence.  Writing about the emergence of a bipartisan neoliberal consensus beginning in the Reagan era and continuing today, they write: “These changes did not go unnoticed or occur without pushback. Yet those who sought to defend or resurrect the ideas under siege found themselves caught in what communications experts call a ‘spiral of silence.’ In such a spiral, opinions become dominant because of acquiescence as well as acceptance. Even if individuals do not agree with an idea, their sense that it is shared broadly makes them reluctant to voice dissent. In time, this anticipation can create self-fulfilling cycles—a ‘spiral’—in which conflicting ideas are pushed to the periphery. When alternative understandings are no longer voiced confidently, we collectively forget their power.” (American Amnesia, p. 198)

“Corporate school reform” is what we often call it—the idea that schools can be made more efficient by business school principles like accountability, determined through the data set of aggregate standardized test scores. Further, de-regulation will make schools more innovative and teachers will be motivated with financial incentives to work harder to raise scores. The other part of the theory is support for privatization.  When they talk about privatization of public schools, a lot of Democrats have tried to avoid offending either side—feeling safe if they can slice and dice: Tuition vouchers for private and religious schools are off limits, but it is OK to be for schools operated under charter by unregulated private contractors because the charter schools are publicly funded.

This week, striking teachers in Los Angeles have undertaken to challenge what has for too long been a bipartisan consensus supporting neoliberal education reform.  Members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles have set out to expose what school privatization has done to their schools by eating up so much money their public school district can no longer afford to protect decent class size.

Jeff Bryant captures the political irony in our confused understanding of the implications of charter school growth in the lede to his fine new analysis of the Los Angeles teachers’ strike: “This week, Republican lawmakers held a press conference on Capitol Hill to kick off National School Choice Week, an annual event that began in 2011 under President Obama, who proclaimed it as a time to ‘recognize the role of public charter schools play in providing America’s daughters and sons with a chance to reach their fullest potential.’ This year, Democratic lawmakers took a pass on the celebration. You can thank striking teachers for that.”

For The Intercept, Rachel Cohen describes the significance the Los Angeles strike as Democrats are being forced to notice that problems with charter schools are being increasingly documented: “But perhaps more notably, the teachers are also striking against school privatization. In December, the union called for a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.  Los Angeles has 224 charter schools, more than any other city in the country… The centrality of opposition to charter school growth in the LA protests has put many Democrats in an uncomfortable position. The Democratic Party has long straddled an awkward political balancing act between the charter school and labor movements, which both fund Democratic candidates, but war with each other. Today with people across the country focused on the LA teachers, most Democratic lawmakers have stayed silent, and even those who have weighed in have mostly avoided commenting on the union’s opposition to charter school growth.”

Prominent Democrats who have supported charter schools include not only President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, but also Bill and Hillary Clinton, and some candidates today considering running for President in 2020, including most prominently New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. For the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss explains, “Duncan and Democratic supporters, including the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, got behind charters and the people who wanted to expand them. Democratic hedge fund operators and Democratic philanthropists, including Bill Gates, collectively donated billions of dollars to the cause. Billionaire Eli Broad, who has long held allegiance to the Democratic Party, was the prime mover behind a 2015 plan that would have transformed the Los Angeles school district and would have led to nearly half of its students being enrolled in charters… In California, the very Democratic Jerry Brown opened two charter schools when he was mayor of Oakland and, as governor, opposed serious efforts to strengthen oversight.”  Strauss adds, however, that the public may be rethinking support: “Two Democrats ran last year for superintendent of public instruction (in California). One was backed by charter school supporters. The other wasn’t. The one who wasn’t, Tony Thurmond, won, although his opponent, Marshall Tuck, raised a lot more money.”

Charter schools are now over twenty years old.  While support for charter schools has enjoyed bipartisan cachet, a wide body of academic research has increasingly demonstrated problems.  In New Jersey,  Rutgers professor Julia Sass Rubin and Mark Weber document that charter schools draw away public money at the same time they strand public school districts with the cost of educating the students with the greatest needs: “New Jersey charter schools enroll a fundamentally different student population than the districts where their students reside: New Jersey charter schools continue to enroll proportionally fewer special education and Limited English Proficient students than their sending district public schools. The special education students enrolled in charter schools tend to have less costly disabilities compared to special education students in the district public schools…  (M)any charter schools continue to enroll fewer at-risk students than their sending district public schools.”

Major studies also document that diversion of public school funding to privatized charter schools is fiscally devastating for the public school districts where the charters are located.  While the Los Angeles Unified School District is not among the California school districts studied in a report earlier this year, political economist Gordon Lafer analyzed the impact of charter schools in several other school districts in California:  “In 2016-17, charter schools led to a net fiscal shortfall of $57.3 million for the Oakland Unified School District, $65.9 million for the San Diego Unified School District, and $19.3 million for Santa Clara County’s East Side Union High School District. The California Charter School Act currently doesn’t allow school boards to consider how a proposed charter school may impact a district’s educational programs or fiscal health when weighing new charter applications. However, when a student leaves a neighborhood school for a charter school, their pro-rated share of funding leaves with them, while the district remains responsible for many costs that those funds had supported. This intensifies fiscal pressure to cut core services like counseling, libraries, and special education, and increase class sizes at neighborhood schools.” Lafer’s report confirms the findings of earlier academic research by Rutgers’ school finance expert, Bruce Baker, and researchers at Roosevelt University in Chicago—that charter schools operate as parasites sucking the life from their host public school districts.

The late British historian Tony Judt described the emergence of a neoliberal consensus in Britain and the United States in the book he published shortly before his death in 2010, Ill Fares the Land: “(I)f we had to identify just one general consequence of the intellectual shift that marked the last third of the 20th century, it would surely be the worship of the private and, in particular, the cult of privatization… What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage.”  After demonstrating that privatization has not improved the efficiency of the institutions which have been privatized, and showing that all of the formerly public institutions were “inherently the sort of activity that someone has to regulate—that is why they ended up in public hands in the first place,” Judt describes the loss of the understanding of the meaning of “the public”: “The result is an eviscerated society.  From the point of view of the person at the bottom… it is no longer to the state, the administration or the government that he or she instinctively turns. The service or benefit in question is now often ‘delivered’ by a private intermediary.  As a consequence, the thick mesh of social interactions and public goods has been reduced to a minimum…. Governments that are too weak or discredited to act through their citizens are more likely to seek their ends by other means: by exhorting, cajoling, threatening and ultimately coercing people to obey them. The loss of social purpose articulated through public services actually increases the unrestrained powers of the over-mighty state.” (Ill Fares the Land, pp 107-119) (Emphasis in the original.)

In an article last spring about the meaning of the teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and other states, a commentary that directly speaks to the current Los Angeles teachers’ strike, Henry Giroux agrees with Tony Judt: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life.  They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy. Moreover, they symbolize the centrality of education as a right and public good whose mission is to enable young people to exercise those modes of leadership and governance in which ‘they can become fully free to claim their moral and political agency.‘ Rejecting the idea that education is a commodity to be bought and sold, teachers and students across the country are reclaiming education as a public good and a human right, a protective space that should be free of violence and open to critical teaching and learning.”

This blog has previously covered the Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike here and here.

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Teachers in Los Angeles Delay Strike Till Next Week; District Faces Long and Catastrophic Fiscal Crisis

After months of failed negotiations, the United Teachers of Los Angeles had scheduled a strike beginning today. They have now postponed the strike until Monday, January 14th. The problems in the district that have driven teachers to strike are complex; their situation is impossibly simple. Their pay has not risen adequately and the conditions in the city’s schools for children and for teachers are deplorable. For the NY Times, Jennifer Medina and Dana Goldstein report: “Some classes have as many as 45 students… and school nurses, art and music teachers must serve thousands of students by traveling to multiple schools.”

We are told that, with its huge economy, California is unlike the other states where teachers walked out last spring. They were Red states for the most part—exemplars of supply-side, tax cutting and promoters of marketplace choice through charter schools. Instead, we are told, California is a Blue state.

A long, long time ago, California had Blue-state education funding, but that was from 1959 to 1967, under Jerry Brown’s father, Governor Pat Brown. For forty years, however, California has, in reality, been the primary exemplar of Red-state school funding and school privatization.  In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, the state law that began the state-by-state, anti-tax slide which has undermined public school funding across the country.  In 2012, with Proposition 30, California Governor Jerry Brown pushed through new taxes for education, but they have not been enough to undo the impact of Proposition 13.

In a profound 1998 book, Paradise Lost, about what happened in California, Peter Schrag, the long-time editorial page director of the Sacramento Bee, defines the principles that have dominated California school funding since 1978: “Proposition 13 and the initiatives that followed in its wake—the tax and spending cuts, the growing constraints on both state and local government and the accompanying shift from a communitarian ethic to a market ethic—have in fact had a profound effect in lowering expectations and in blurring the vision of what good government and a high standard of public services could be like. In recent years, as revenues have grown, the California political debate about the support and quality of its public services has inadvertently confirmed the effects of twenty years of Mississippification:  even in the midst of prosperity, that debate has not been about… any ideal of quality; it has been focused, rather, on the question of how far behind the national average the Golden State still finds itself, and how long it will take to catch up.  It has been a dispute about how to get to mediocrity.” (Paradise Lost, p. xiii)

Proposition. 13 froze local property taxes. Schrag explains: “What the taxpayers gained the tax collector lost. Overnight, property tax revenues for local agencies declined between $6 and $7 billion annually. (They would lose more later.) This amounted to roughly 27 percent of all revenues for cities, 40 percent of all county revenues, nearly half (on average) of what school districts had been getting, and up to 90 percent for some fire districts.”(p. 154) “The cumulative effect of those measures was not only the massive transfer of control from local government to Sacramento… but a massive constriction of the power of all government to manage revenues.” (p. 162)

Medina and Goldstein report that today, in 2019 Los Angeles: “The impending strike highlights the fact that despite California’s reputation as a center of liberal policy, it spends relatively little on public education. School spending levels, about $11,000 per student in 2016, are far below those in other blue bastions; for example, California spends about half as much as New York on the average child… More than a fifth of public school students in California are… learning English, the highest percentage in the country… With many wealthy and white families opting to choose charter or private schools, or move to other surrounding school districts, the Los Angeles school district is disproportionately African-American and Latino. A study from U.C.L.A.’s Civil Rights Project found that Latino students in Los Angeles are more segregated than anywhere else in the country.”

In its 2017 report, Charters and Consequences, the Network for Public Education examines the impact of the expansion of charter schools in a number of states. Here are some facts about California: “California has the most charter schools and charter school students in the nation. In 2000, there were 299 charter schools in the Golden State. By 2016 there were 1230… While most are brick and mortar schools, 20% of California’s charters are either online schools or schools where students drop by to pick up work. Such schools are often fronts for for-profit corporations. In general, their results are dismal.”

In a May 2018 report for In the Public InterestBreaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, political economist Gordon Lafer describes the devastating fiscal impact in California for a local public school district of the expansion of charter schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” Imagine the impact in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district with 900 schools and roughly 600,000 students.

U.C.L.A. education sociologist, Pedro Noguera published a commentary in the Los Angeles Times earlier this week to situate the pending strike in the context of the long and devastating fiscal challenges faced by the Los Angeles Unified Schools District: “In 2015, then-Supt. Ray Cortines assembled a blue-ribbon committee to conduct an objective analysis of the district’s finances and to make recommendations for how projected deficits should be addressed. The report’s conclusions were stark: ‘The expanding gap represents a serious challenge to the LAUSD’s financial stability in the near term, one that insists upon immediate action today.’  It warned that immediate and difficult measures would be required if the district hoped to continue adequately serving its students beyond the 2019-20 school year, noting that ‘failure to do so could lead to the insolvency of the LAUSD….’ ”

Noguera explores the school district’s complex fiscal realities: “The district, as the teachers union has pointed out, does have a reserve fund of close to $2 billion. These funds could definitely help in reaching a settlement with the union. However, the existence of the reserve can’t make up for the fact that LAUSD currently spends about half a billion dollars more each year than it takes in… Without painful corrective action, its financial situation will worsen considerably over the next few years.” “The potential strike by teachers must be understood in this larger context. The teachers and their union have raised important and legitimate concerns, and the fiscal condition of the district does not negate the validity of their demands. The district must invest in its schools and its personnel if it hopes to have a future… In addition to providing education to nearly 600,000 students, the school district is also the city’s largest employer.”

As he wraps up his column, however, Noguera defines a much deeper problem lurking underneath the district’s long term funding crisis and the issues over which teachers plan to strike: “A few months after moving to Los Angeles I was invited to speak to a group of influential Angelenos about the need to invest in high quality after-school programs to support the well-being and development of children.  During my remarks, I asked those present how many had attended a Los Angeles public school themselves. Most of those in the audience raised a hand.  I then asked how many of them had children or grandchildren who were enrolled at district schools. Only a few hands went up. This is a huge problem. When those with power and influence are disconnected from the school system and more concerned with making preparations for the 2028 Olympics than they are with schools that serve most of the city’s children, we are in serious trouble.”