Charter Schools and the Commodity of Public Education

The debate about charter schools rages on in LatinoLA

By Jose Lara and Anthony Martin
Published on LatinoLA: September 8, 2008

Charter Schools and the Commodity of Public Education

The debate over charter schools and the privatization of education can be heard in teacher parking lots, the faculty cafeteria and most loudly in the Union Hall of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). The debate rages over what to do about the increasing number of charter schools in Los Angeles and what this means for the future of public education. There are those who believe that every new charter school brings us one step closer to merit-pay, school vouchers, and the end of public education as we know it. However, we must extend the narrow paradigm that equates the expansion of charter schools to the privatization of education, because not all charters are created equal and in fact, at times some charter schools are more "public" than public schools.

Towards a redefinition of "Public Schools"

Public school should not be defined so far as merely being government-funded education. Far too often the "public" does not include all community stakeholders that attend and live within the boundaries of the school, but instead the term "public" is really referring to private companies, consultants and lawyers who make a killing off of "public" funding of education by selling school districts so-called "accountability measures" that are really code words for culturally biased standardized tests. But these trends that exploit and pervert the same system that is designed to emancipate children of the poor and working classes of society do not stop here. Not only do these companies sell these tests to schools, but they also profit from study guides, curriculum, teacher-training, and intervention programs that are supposed to help to improve test scores while forgetting why schools were created in the first place; so that children can learn. This is not the type of "public" education that we should be defending.

There are those who argue that what makes public schools "public" is that they accept all students and people get to vote for their school board members and thereby can hold the school board accountable. The first point is well taken; public schools do accept all students; that is, if they have room for them on campus. If they do not, then they can bus them off out of their neighborhood to another school. Those students that are allowed to attend the nearby public school may not be there for long, especially if they are students of color. Currently, the push-out rates for students of color in the Los Angeles Unified Schools District are near 50%. For non-Asian males, the numbers are even higher. The reality is that "public" schools have failed to properly educate their students, especially students of color.

Having an elected school board does not make things much better either. Most school board members do not represent the best interests of those very students that they are responsible for, and in fact, they often use the school board seat as a spring board for city council and other elected positions. Then Los Angeles Unified School Board member, Jose Huizar, for example, did nothing in 2005 when Santee High, the newest high school LAUSD in over 30 years, opened its doors understaffed and without the proper resources which lead to a student riot and revolt on campus. Unfortunately, Jose Huizar was too busy running for Los Angeles City Council to worry about the problems at Santee (he won the city council seat by a large majority). Despite calls from parents and teachers, Jose Huizar did nothing to assist in the chaos occurring at Santee. The irony is that Mr. Huizar was all too eager to be front and center during the school's grand opening when all the media cameras were present. The reality is that our election process does not hold the School Boards accountable. Moreover, many of the parents of children in LAUSD are not eligible to vote anyways because of their citizenship status.

We must redefine what is truly "public." By public we mean essentially democratic schools that have local control; that it is the parents, teachers, and students who make the important decisions at the school. By public we refer to committed teachers who teach beyond the state standards in order to include cultural relevancy. The unfortunate truth is that it is generally these same, committed teachers that end up being persecuted, fired, or blacklisted from the school district as a result of their direct, in-class advocacy for their students' best interests. This was the case last year with the firing of Ms. Salazar from Jordan High School in Los Angeles for being "too afro-centric" in her teaching. Jordan High School is a historically predominantly African-American High School. If Jordan High School was truly a "public" school then parents, students, and fellow teachers would have had their voices heard and Ms. Salazar would not have been fired. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Despite the community outcry, Ms. Salazar was removed by LAUSD officials from Jordan.

It is cases like the one at Jordan High that make one as an educator, as a community member, and as a concerned human being that contributes to such a so-called "public" school, wonder exactly where the line is drawn between an emancipating education system and a repressive institution that perpetuates the same trends that contribute to the same problems that haunt our society and those of our community's youth; the lack of representation of the interests of students, the lack of tools to advocate for oneself, and the general lack of consciousness that could serve to realize any type of public education capable of promoting true social justice.

Charter schools as a point of scrutiny for public schools

This brings one as an educator to wonder about exactly where the point exists that a school begins to fulfill its responsibilities to its students and to its community. It has been the case that within the realm of public schools, there has been a gross amount of economic, political, and repressive motives that have not benefited its students in the least. Therefore, upon a consideration of the "charter-school movement", superficial criticisms have naturally abounded over the motives that differ qualitatively from those that covertly drive public schools.

Academia Semillas del Pueblo, located in the community of El Sereno, just east of downtown L.A., is an example of a truly "public," democratic charter school that has local control over management, teachers, curriculum, schedule and budget. "Dedicated to providing urban children of immigrant native families an excellent education founded upon their own language, cultural values and global realities," Academia stands as a shining ray of light in the face of a deteriorating, dysfunctional public education system.

Once LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the nation, understands that building long-overdue schools is only part of the problem, and that the priority is and always should be to serve the needs, wants and children of the community, then perhaps the argument can be qualitatively be made against charter schools at large. Until then, however, sight must not be lost or diluted by shallow arguments for or against charter schools, but rather, the principle of educating youth must be reemphasized and perhaps even redefined, and if this principle is championed by charter schools, so be it.

About Jose Lara and Anthony Martin:
Jose Lara and Anthony Martin are both social justice educators who teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District and are members of the Association of Raza Educators (ARE), Los Angeles. For more information about ARE please visit
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