L.A. schools: When your enemy reaches out, reach back [Blowback]
Caprice Young, former president of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education and former head of the California Charter Schools Assn., responds to The Times' Sept. 1 article, "At his charter school, ex-UTLA head would target tenure." If you would like to respond to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed by participating in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.
My in-box has been swamped since the news broke of my working with A.J. Duffy, former head of United Teachers Los Angeles, to start Apple Academy Charter Public Schools. Many of the emails ask if I am in my right mind, considering that Duffy and UTLA did everything in their power to unseat me as L.A. school board president in 2003.
What initially got Duffy and me to work together was the scandal surrounding the Crescendo charter schools, in which teachers said they were ordered by administrators to cheat on standardized tests. When the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Crescendo board weighed closing the schools (which they ultimately did), Duffy's UTLA took the extraordinary step of representing charter school teachers and calling for the Crescendo campuses to remain open.
Usually, when the union tries to recruit charter school teachers, it leads to months of distraction from the all-important focus on learning. Most charters aren't unionized for that reason. Charters that work well can't be unionized because both administrators and teachers are aligned in mutual respect and in their focus on students.
In the case of Crescendo, things were different. The director of the school was pressuring teachers to cheat on the state tests, threatening their jobs if they didn't comply. The teachers turned to Duffy and UTLA to defend themselves from bad management.
Duffy and I spoke a few times during that period, and I could hear in our conversations that he was beginning to understand why teachers choose to work in charter schools: to use all of their professional creativity to help students and to be part of a team united in that mission with the courage to innovate.
The Crescendo cheating scandal took place in the spring of 2010. In 2011, LAUSD closely monitored the testing and no cheating took place. The scores of the students, from predominantly high-poverty households, continued to beat state benchmarks. The teachers and families rallied around the kids and kept them on track despite the upheaval. Nevertheless, the L.A. Unified and Crescendo boards chose to close these schools in mid-July, too late for most of the 1,300 students to participate in the entrance lotteries for other charter schools. And it was too late for most of the roughly 70 teachers to get new jobs.
Duffy and City Councilman David Cunningham Jr., who had once represented most of South Los Angeles, later reached out to me, saying they wanted to start charter schools. I reached back. Together we recruited a solid board, including charter and business leaders. A strong core of talented teachers and dedicated families remains deeply engaged in this collaboration.
Our initial goal was to quickly submit new charters to L.A. Unified so we could open new schools this month. However, 30 days was not enough time to get the charter written, reviewed and approved by the school board for an on-time start of school, particularly with no funds.
Apple Academy is a labor of love for all of us volunteering to create great inner-city schools, which will open next fall.
There is more to this.
For 10 years, charter, union and district leaders have been at war, each worried that the others threaten their right to educate students, and perhaps even their existence as well. I've lived it, both as school board president and charter school leader. The state and districts force charters to educate students with fewer dollars and little access to reasonable school facilities, despite state laws mandating that they have access to equity. So all sides fight.
While we fight, funding for each California student has fallen to less than half as much as in New York or New Jersey. When all the public hears is fighting, they throw up their hands in disgust -- rightly.
Someone has to stop fighting so we can all focus on the kids. Did I think Duffy, the public caricature of a brash union leader, was nuts? Absolutely. But when I sit down and quietly listen to one man's aspirations for students and the teaching profession, I don't. One of the things he wrote to me was:
As UTLA president, I saw that despite the promises made by the district to pilot school leaders, the district just piled the bureaucratic rules back on and never made good on the promises of autonomy. The only way to make a difference is to have real independence. Besides, charters were started in the first place from the ideas of a real union leader -- Al Shanker -- he wanted teacher-led schools. I want teacher-led schools. I believe that will be best for the students.
I want that too.
-- Caprice Young
Photo: A.J. Duffy talks to to protesters in downtown Los Angeles in August 2009. Credit: Reed Saxon/ Associated Press