The Los Angeles teachers’ strike is in its third day, with no end in sight and only about a quarter of the L.A. Unified School District’s 600,000 students attending classes, which are being taught by substitute teachers.
The strike by the 31,000 members of United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents not only teachers, but also nurses, counselors, and librarians, is ostensibly about higher pay and more benefits. That a teachers union, in California of all places, would need more pay and benefits is curious. After all, government unions—especially the teachers unions—enjoy enormous clout in California, from the governor’s office to the Democratic supermajority in the legislature down to local school districts.
But this strike really isn’t about just pay and benefits. It’s about charter schools—specifically, killing them . The real reason for the union’s concern was revealed when on the second day of the strike, the picketers mobbed the downtown L.A. headquarters of the California Charter Schools Association.
Charter schools in California are a form of public school, as they are elsewhere. They’re paid for by the same taxpayers who fund the traditional public school system, and generally, the same neighborhood families attend them. But charters have more flexible rules, less teacher union control, influence and representation. They allow for teacher merit pay, and, most importantly, management more in line with business practices than government bureaucracies. Another difference between charters and traditional schools is charters are schools of choice and cannot exist unless families actively chose them.
In the territory covered by the Los Angeles Unified School District—the second-largest school district in the nation—some 1 in 5 children now attend a charter school.
Due to growing dissatisfaction with public school results, California became the second state in the nation to pass a charter school law in 1992. Charter school enrollment soared in California, typically reaching double-digit annual growth rates until, in the 2017-18 school year, there were 1,275 charter school campuses serving 1 in 10 of the state’s public school students.
But starting about a decade ago, teachers unions began to exert more pressure on the California legislature to pass laws placing greater restrictions on charter schools. There were attempts to eliminate the very attributes that led to charter schools’ popularity with parents and students alike.
But the new restrictions only slowed the pace of charter school enrollment growth. In the last year, charter enrollment grew by only 5% in California. But while charter enrollment was on pace to grow by 35,500 students, traditional public school enrollment in the nation’s most-populous state was projected to fall by more than 75,000 students—that’s enough students to employ about 3,200 dues-paying union teachers at the state’s reported student-to-teacher ratio of 23.4-to-1.
Add to that the threat of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Janus v. AFCME decision which makes it more difficult for teachers’ unions to withhold union dues from teacher’s paychecks, and one can understand how the union leadership in California feels under siege even while enjoying unprecedented access to power.
Eric Garcetti, L.A.’s mayor and a rumored Democratic candidate for president, is trying to resolve the strike to his favor, though he hinted at the larger issues at stake when he remarked about the strike, “In broad terms, this is about much more than pay. This is about the soul of our schools and the way L.A. does or does not build a culture to collectively invest in our future.” If by “soul” and “collectively invest” you mean enforcing a government union monopoly on education, then the mayor’s right.
Just six weeks ago, an article in “The Progressive,” a left wing publication, signaled the coming struggle. In “The Tide May Be Turning on Billionaire Backers of Charter Schools in California,” the author note that “School choice advocates experienced a big loss” in 2018 elections where Tony Thurmond, the newly-elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction, “…called for a temporary ban on any new K-12 charter schools in the state, saying California has reached a ‘tipping point’ with too many charters…” California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, has also called for more restrictions on charter schools. Unsurprisingly, he was endorsed by the state’s largest union: the California Teachers Association.
Few of the elite parents in Silicon Valley send their children to public schools. The advent of charter schools allowed working class parents to be similarly unconstrained by their ZIP Code or family income levels. The rapid growth of charter school enrollment in California was proof that these parents, many of them immigrants, were exercising choice to improve educational outcomes for their children.
New projections by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics estimate that California public school enrollment, including charters, peaked in the fall of 2013 and will decline every year through 2027, while enrollment in Texas public schools, growing at about 1% per year, is expected to exceed that of California’s, 6,080,000 students to 5,978,900.
Projected percentage change in public elementary and secondary school enrollment, by state: Fall 2015 to fall 2027 NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
If the political environment in California is increasingly hostile to choices in public education, the reverse is true in Texas.
In 2013, the Texas legislature voted to lift the artificial cap on the number of charters granted to operate charter schools. Charter school enrollment has accelerated and hit 10% growth last year in Texas, for a total of 337,100 students, compared to 5% growth in California with 630,300 students.
Further, in Texas, if you are a high quality charter school, you don’t need a local school district’s approval to expand into the school districts territory, so these charters can easily proliferate. In contrast, California’s school district boards routinely resisted the granting of new charter schools leading the legislature to approve the nation’s first parent trigger law in 2010, allowing parents living in districts with failing schools the ability to gather signatures to demand a charter. The law has been used sparingly since. (Disclosure, the author voted for the measure, SBX5-4.)
Charter schools’ market share of public school enrollment is now about 6.7% in Texas compared to 6.2% last year. In California, where charter school growth has slowed, market share still expanded last year to 10.7% from 10.1% because traditional public schools lost enrollment.
Texas charter schools, initially focused on serving largely minority students where academic achievement lagged, are now seeing enrollment gains in more affluent areas. It appears choice isn’t only popular in the urban cores or in the Rio Grande Valley.
But choice for the sake of choice is one thing; improved academic results through innovation is the expectation as is the case generally whenever consumers have a choice. This phenomena was detailed and confirmed by the groundbreaking research of MIT professor Caroline Hoxby, now at the Hoover Institution. Hoxby found that when more than 6% of students were enrolled in a school choice program, whether via charters, tax credits or even inter- and intra-district transfers, the average test scores in the traditional public schools went up as public school leaders moved to keep market share in the face of alternatives.
Texas surpassed the 6% school choice threshold last year while California reached the “tipping point” more than a decade ago. Now, however, California politicians, in thrall to the powerful teachers unions, are attempting to put the education choice genie back in the bottle, while Texas appears poised to increase educational choices and quality.
Across the nation, increasing numbers of parents and students are demanding educational choice—the Internet has taught them to expect it.