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John Thompson: Dare Anyone Say No to Eli Broad?

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John Thompson, historian and teacher, here analyzes Eli Broad’s plan to add 260 charters for Los Angeles, so that charters enroll half the students in the LAUSD. One of our regular readers, Jack Covey, commented on the blog that the “anonymous” plan was actually authored by former LAUSD superintendent John Deasy, but I can’t confirm that.

The largely pro-reform LA School Report and the Los Angeles Times have already published powerful analyses of the Broad Foundation’s once-secret plan to turn half of the Los Angeles Public School System into charters. But the 44-page anonymously authored proposal is jammed-packed with even more dubious claims. And, it provides more insight into the corporate reformers’ mindset.

The Broad Foundation did not respond to the LA School Report’s critique of its methodology and its exaggerated claims of success. The School Report’s Craig Clough parsed the actual data and concluded:

But when all factors are considered, there is little conclusive evidence in the report outlining the expansion plans that shows big investments in charters always — or evenly routinely — achieve consistent academic improvements, raising an important question: Just what can Broad and other foundations promise for an investment of nearly half a billion dollars in an expansion effort that would dramatically change the nation’s second-largest school district?

The reporting by the LA Times Howard Blume also provides a solid overview. LA charters serve student populations that are somewhere in between the ones served by LA magnet schools and traditional public schools. And, their outcomes are somewhere in between those posted by the city’s magnets and neighborhood schools. The Broad paper gives no reason to believe that LA charters could be scaled up and still perform better than the city’s high-poverty traditional public schools.

Turning to the actual Broad proposal, which it now calls a “preliminary discussion draft,” it cites the data (contradictory as it is) from three high-performing charter school chains as evidence that 260 new charters could be established by 2023, and that they would greatly increase student performance. It makes a big deal out of the 52% of charters receiving an API score of 800 and greater, but it doesn’t attempt to identify how many of them are high-poverty.

Broad brags about the average charter API of 811 and contrasts it with the 80% low-income LAUSD’s average API of 745. But, two of the featured charter chains have an average APIs of 762 and 714, respectively. And, they run 34 of the 43 charter schools that supposedly are the model that will save Los Angeles. In other words, even with the charters in the chains showcased by Broad, only about 1/5th of them produce above-average scores. (Moreover, those schools are run by KIPP, and they don’t come close to serving the “same” students as high-poverty neighborhood schools.)

The bottom line is that the Broad claim that 260 high-quality charter schools can be created in eight years is basically based on the results from nine schools in a chain known for its high attrition rate.

Broad also ignores Blume on how “many parents apply to both magnets and charters before making a choice,” and pretends that the numbers on those lists are not inflated by those multiple applications. It then assumes that waiting lists will grow by 10,000 students a year.

Using equally flimsy logic and evidence, Broad projects that charters will have 130,000 students by 2023. This claim assumes that “Great Public Schools Now” schools will grow their student population by 7% per year even though they don’t yet exist, have no students, and are merely a “preliminary discussion draft.” The report admits that it the charter teachers will be paid less, making teacher recruitment more difficult. It acknowledges that solving the problem of recruiting principals is nonnegotiable, so it warns that that issue must be addressed immediately. In other words, it seems unlikely that Broad bothered to ask whether it was physically possible to even slap that many schools together in such a time frame.

Of course, the key issue is whether charters are capable of learning how to serve their share of students with special education disabilities and English Language Learners, as well as children who have endured extreme trauma. The Broad paper is silent on that crucial question, as it changes the subject to marketing. It produces a multicolored map of clusters of low-performing schools, while pretending that it doesn’t undermine their case. The graphic supposedly shows, “These areas are especially ripe for charter expansion.” But, it doesn’t explain why today’s charters haven’t already tried to tackle those challenges, or why they would be successful if they tried. In other words, Broad doesn’t see complicated real world problems to be solved; it sees market opportunities.

Even when it gets to the political marketing at which it excels, the Broad logic falls short. Corporate reformers forget the repudiation of their client, former LA Superintendent John Deasy. Their paper asserts, “The recent Board elections also moved in a positive direction, although there is still not a pro-charter majority.” It counts one of the races as a victory, admitting that one was a defeat, but claiming that “many are hopeful that the victor in that race, Scott Schmerelson, will take a reasonable position toward charter expansion.

Or should I say the reformers pretend to forget their educational and political defeats? Perhaps they can blow off the failure of their expensive and risky school improvement experiments, but it doesn’t seem like they can shake off rejection at the polls. Why else would Broad draft a school reform plan that ignores education evidence while focusing on conquering education markets and defeating opponents?

Concluding a proposal that ignores social science research and fails to articulate a scenario where students would benefit from mass charterization, Broad instead tallies the troops on both sides of the battle it is about to launch. It argues “the number of parents with children on charter waitlists now exceeds the number of UTLA members.”

Broad thus forgets that parents who sign up for multiple waitlists can’t vote multiple times in the same election.

But, that is not the key point. It should now be clear that successful efforts to improve schools must be done with educators, not to them. Broad’s
inclusion of that insulting graphic makes it clear that it sees teachers as the enemy. The corporate reforms are obviously focused on Broad’s personal enemies – educators, unions, and public schools controlled by the patrons, and not his minions. They continue to ignore the real enemy – the poverty that undermines learning.

And that bring us back to the LA School Report’s Clough and his question of what does Broad actually promise. It promises more assaults on teachers, unions, and patrons who disagree with them. The Broad plan promises more reward and punish, but not a policy that is likely to do more good than harm to children. It certainly does not promise improved schools for entire neighborhoods with intense concentrations of generational poverty and children who have survived extreme trauma.

Instead, Broad promises a fight to the finish between the two halves of the city’s schools. It thus promises more test, sort, winners and losers, and the pushing out of children whose test scores make it more difficult for adults to defeat their opponents. It promises an ultimate battle over who controls public education.

Perhaps most importantly, it promises retribution to educators across the nation if they try to resist Eli Broad and the Billionaires Boys’ Club.

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