21 May L.A. Daily News Op-Ed by Dr. Jacqueline Elliot
Imagining Los Angeles without charter schools
by Dr. Jacqueline Elliot
I’ve been trying to imagine Los Angeles without charter schools.
What if, 20 years ago, instead of opening the first charter middle school in L.A. County, I’d remained a classroom teacher at a traditional elementary school? What if other restless, determined educators had done the same? What if hundreds of thousands of families in neighborhoods that had been historically underserved, from Watts to East L.A. to Pacoima, were never offered another option?
What would public education look like, and how would the system have impacted a generation of Los Angeles students?
There are two reasons I’ve been envisioning a world without charters. One is that the first school that I founded, PUC Community Charter Middle School (which became the first in a network of 15 PUC schools in the San Fernando Valley and northeast L.A.) is celebrating its 20th anniversary — prompting me to reflect on how we’ve influenced our communities and the education ecosystem.
The other reason is that charter schools, for the first time in the two decades that I’ve been part of the movement, are in serious trouble. The state Assembly and Senate will vote this week on legislation aimed at halting charter schools’ growth and making it easy to deny renewal to even the most outstanding charter schools. Suddenly, this community of educators and families feels fragile.
When I imagine Los Angeles without charter schools, I think about a student I’ll call Ana who enrolled in the 6th grade of our first school. She was reading at a 2nd grade level. By the end of the first year, she’d caught up. She thrived at our school, but her only option for high school was a traditional LAUSD campus. She dropped out because she felt lost and unsafe.
But I also think of Luis, who started at PUC Community Middle and was three grade levels behind due to a learning disability that hadn’t been addressed. He was able to move on to a PUC high school and then a four-year university, which led to a burgeoning career in computer science.
I try to imagine his life — and the lives of countless other children like him — if our schools had never existed. Twenty years ago, more than 50 percent of Los Angeles Unified’s students were dropping out. Middle schools were floundering, and high schools were in even worse condition. So, while we had no track record and no campus, parents knew their children weren’t getting the care or the rigorous instruction they needed. That’s why we were able to sign up 100 students in just two weeks for our first school.
The data shows that many of our children, if they hadn’t had the option of enrolling in PUC, would have fallen through the cracks. Even today, a startling number of L.A. Unified students — nearly half — graduate without having taken the courses they need to be eligible for the state’s public universities. But at PUC, 96 percent of graduates this year will be UC- and CSU-ready.
When I imagine Los Angeles without charter schools, I imagine a sea of high school graduates whose diplomas barely count, because those students are ineligible for college. I imagine the disappointed faces of immigrant parents who sacrificed mightily to provide a better education for their children, only to watch them get lost in a bureaucratic system. I imagine teachers who, unable to create the kinds of learning environments their students need, watch their own passion slowly contort into cynicism. Los Angeles without charter schools is a Los Angeles of missed opportunities.
Charter schools aren’t perfect. But they have made a huge difference for many thousands of students, particularly in high-poverty communities of color. A recent report by Innovate Public Schools and the University of Southern California found that 80 percent of the top public middle schools for low-income African American students in math are charters.
Legislators should reject policies that would have such dire consequences in our neediest communities. It would be a tragedy for students if charter schools began to disappear — all because the politics got too heated.
I can imagine a Los Angeles where charter schools aren’t so isolated, where they’re true partners with the district. But I don’t want to imagine Los Angeles without charter schools.
Dr. Jacqueline Elliot founded the first startup charter school in the San Fernando Valley, Community Charter Middle School, in 1999, which grew into PUC Schools. Elliot is President & CEO of PUC National. She is the author of Passionate Warrior: My Charter School Journey.