Over the last twenty years, parents frustrated with their children’s public school option have fueled a burgeoning charter school movement, which now comprises nearly a sixth of the LA Unified student population. But as charter schools have grown in size and popularity, so has backlash from parents and students in non-charter public schools. Most recently, problems have manifested with the implementation of Proposition 39, which deals with space for charter schools.
Since the 18th century, beginning with the Land Ordinance of 1785, public education has been a hallmark of American life, and it has only grown since its establishment. Millions of American students participate in this system, a majority of school-age students in fact, and for them, it’s the only educational system they’ll encounter through secondary school, whether it’s a Unified School District in California or an Independent School District in Texas. However, nearing the end of the 20th century, a paradigm shift began. Parents were frustrated by schools that were overstuffed, understaffed, and lacking in dynamic programs to engage students. They encountered increasingly intransigent school bureaucracies and labyrinthian processes that didn’t sufficiently address their children’s needs. There was always a certain fraction of parents that would homeschool or send their kids to private schools, but for the overwhelming majority, those were not viable options. Moreover, parental issues notwithstanding, some teachers wanted school management out of bureaucrats’ hands, and other members of the public wanted schools to be able to break free of onerous and standardized educational regulations to provide greater innovation and freedom for students. These people felt that public schools could adequately educate students, but also that public funding could be put to better use. As a critical mass of parents, students, and teachers were bothered by public schools’ problems and enticed by novel ideas, the charter school movement emerged. By the time the 2000 general election in California rolled around, ill-informed voters approved Proposition 39. They set up the problems that face North Hollywood Senior High. A combination of expensive campaigning, misinformation and lack of information, and inequitable legal language led to these problems with the law.
In 2000, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and others with deep pockets looking for causes to support latched onto a fairly new political movement, one that would transcend traditional political boundaries: charter schools. Even though Governor Gray Davis (D) and previous governor Pete Wilson (R) both supported the initiative in a bipartisan show of power, one of the worst problems with the proposition was who was funding it. A cursory glance at the top ten donors list courtesy of calvoter.org reveals that some of the top donors in support of the proposition are a venture capitalist, his wife, a Walton–an heir to the Walmart fortune donating from Arkansas (!), the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, and three other donors, each of whom took a plunge to the tune of at least a million dollars to sway millions of voters. Donors opposed to the proposition pitched in, at most, a quarter of a million. A slightly-informed voter wouldn’t bat an eye when hearing that a Silicon Valley executive wanted to expand charter schools, due to their publicized advocacy for it, but many questions should have been raised, and were not, as to why there was Walmart money involved. Certainly one should be frustrated upon learning the possibility that the Waltons wanted to increase charters because their hiring and negotiation processes are less burdensome. Advocates of public schools are unlikely to want easier money for schools that have fewer rules to play by. Proponents of the measure outspent opponents nearly 6-1, allowing voters to be overwhelmed with propaganda about smaller class sizes and school success. Although it would be nice to hope that voters read their state-distributed information pamphlets in which both sides of an initiative and their rebuttals have equal space, the sad truth is that most will dwell primarily on what they have seen, true or not, in advertising materials. It is simple fact that many more people were exposed to pro- than anti-39 materials. Thus, campaign finance played a disproportionate role in the promulgation of [mis]information about the proposition. This leads to another problem surrounding the passage of the proposition, information itself.
The problem begins with the title of the proposed law as it appears in the 2000 California Voter Guide, “Smaller Classes, Safer Schools and Financial Accountability Act”. In the short term, the measure may have provided a path for funds for new classrooms, and those funds may have been sufficient. However, 18 years after Proposition 39’s passage and subsequent codification into law, in both the California Constitution and California Education Code, the issues it was intended to solve are still present. Class sizes, in particular, have put increasing strain on public school systems around the state. One unfortunate example, too close to home, is Mr. Bradbury’s Period 2 history class with its catastrophic 48 students. If ever a promise to voters was to be broken, this one has turned out to be the most blatant. Lowering the vote threshold from 67% to 55% meant that more school bond measures would pass in the future and school district debts, as per the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, would increase more often and in greater amounts than they had previously. Particularly in LAUSD, debts hover around crisis levels and despite new bonds, district finances have hardly improved. Another egregious example of misinformation is what many voters thought they would be doing. As opponents of the proposition point out in the Voter Information Guide, the California Legislature had earlier in the year passed conditional bills that would become law only if Proposition 39 passed. Thus, the majority of voters, despite the fact that they were voting on a proposition, one of the methods by which the general eligible public approves laws, had not only no control over other provisions becoming law with the proposition but also no idea as to this hidden consequence of voting for it. Finally, in the arguments and rebuttals presented in the pamphlet, charter schools are hardly mentioned. If people considering the measure didn’t look to hard at the information provided to them, they wouldn’t know that it facilitated the double whammy of more public funds to charter schools while making such funds easier to obtain. And despite this apparent tangential reference to charters in mailers from prior to the election, the specific language surrounding them has caused the most trouble.
“As discussed [in a section regarding the status quo of charter school law preceding the election], [school] districts are currently required to provide facilities for charter schools only if unused district facilities are available.” This is also from the California Legislative Analyst in the 2000 General Election Voter Information Guide, and it succinctly conveys, whilst inspiring angry nostalgia from public school advocates, everything wrong with the charter school provision of Proposition 39. Before the law was implemented in January, only unused spaces could be given to charter schools to use. That’s the only logical way for charter schools and standard public schools to exist. There is no possible coexistence that is successful if charter schools are vying with public schools for space that already belongs to the public schools!. As then-school-board-member Steve Zimmer said during a recent charter colocation debate, “Prop. 39 was designed to create opportunities for charter schools... It was not designed to punish parents of children who choose to remain in neighborhood public schools.” Which, of course, is what it’s done. Proposition 39 enabled that. It changed the law so that school districts had to accommodate charters in facilities reasonably equivalent to normal district school facilities and moreover try to locate them near where they wanted to be situated. Language relating to unused facilities was eliminated. Given the new requirements, some unlucky schools in each district would be stuck with housing charters that received much of the same public funding and then some from private interests at the cost of excessive logistical stress. Our very own North Hollywood Senior High, or at least the proposal facing it, is a perfect example of this. VIP wants to locate within the valley, and LAUSD offered them a piece of our campus. They would require 14 rooms. The problem, of course, is that we don’t have 14 empty rooms, let alone that many equipped for general education. NHHS has so many classrooms with about 40 students that if there are any empty rooms, they should be filled with NHHS students and new NHHS teachers, so that student-teacher ratios approach breathable levels. Needless to say, there are not funds for many more teachers. Certainly not for schools that aren’t complete staffing disasters. And therein lies the problem, once again: 53% plus of voters, 18 years ago, were led to believe that they should force public schools to use resources and facilities for students enrolled technically at other, not-quite-public schools, regardless of true availability of space. Despite understaffing and over-enrollment, schools like NHHS have been expected to pony up a portion of what insufficient resources they already have without receiving anything meaningful in return.
No one denies that charter schools deserve and require spaces to learn. Indeed, those voters who even happened upon information about the proposition that addresses charters probably thought all they were doing was helping out a new kind of school. (It cannot be emphasized how disappointing it is that charters appear to have been made a small issue in the campaign.) Voters probably didn’t know they were creating painful zero-sum games in which charter schools had to receive space from public schools that still needed it. Undoubtedly the lowering of the bond-vote threshold led to more classrooms, but it also led to vicious fights over the same, existing classrooms. No one wanted that, but LAUSD, particularly with its new pro-charter majority, wouldn’t have it any other way. Proposition 39, due to the way it passed and the way it’s been executed, has not done well by the public school way of life.
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