- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2008

LOS ANGELES. — Maybe not this week, or even next week, but sooner or later we’ll have to start paying attention to the right stuff. Hillary’s wrinkles, whatever Oprah has in store for Obama, John Edwards’ beauty-shop appointments, Rudy Giuliani’s wives, Mike Huckabee’s Scripture lessons, John McCain’s age and Mitt Romney’s slickness will be put reluctantly aside.

Then we can talk about, for one example, what to do about the abysmal standards of public education nearly everywhere. In many cities, the public schools, redoubts of violence and ignorance, have been reduced to places merely to be shunned. The educationist establishment, together with the teachers’ unions, have done them in, perhaps beyond repair. Parents are taking things into their own hands in certain places.

One of those places is Los Angeles, where 128 charter schools enroll 47,000 students (or at least kids aspiring to studenthood), 7 percent of the enrollment of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Twenty-six new schools were organized only this year. These range from elementary schools to high schools teaching advanced math and physics. Charter schools didn’t start here — Minnesota enacted the first charter-school legislation 16 years ago. California, accustomed to being the leader in nearly everything, followed this time, but today, California has more charter schools than any other state.

The educationists — administrators and teachers who you might think would aspire to be educators but eagerly settle for the security of pretense — hate them. The very existence of the charter schools are a rebuke to the public schools. Ironically, it was a teachers’ union leader, the late Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who urged the reform of public education by creating an alternative, “charter schools” or “schools of choice.”

Charter schools are public schools within a public-school system, but freed of much of the bureaucratic red tape and obstacle-building that marks public school systems. The school district supplies the budgets, and the school is responsible for finding a building (churches, with empty Sunday school facilities during the week, are favorite solutions) and recruiting students. A charter is allowed to operate much like a private business, relatively free of downtown regulation, and judged more for “outcomes” than for “processes” and “inputs.” (They’re not required to abuse the language, for starters.)

The Los Angeles district professes to love charters, officially calling them “part of the District’s family and an asset from which we can learn,” and promises to love them as long as they “ease the shortage of school facilities and seat space, narrow the achievement gap among students of various backgrounds, increase responsible parent and student involvement in learning, and improve teacher quality and performance evaluation systems.”

The man largely responsible for the growth of charter schools in Los Angeles is Jose J. Cole-Gutierrez, the general manager of the California Charter Schools Association, who has helped scores of schools through the red tape of getting started. He’s the new director of the charter-schools division of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the knives are out.

You might think that someone who knows more about charter schools than almost anyone would be perfect for the job, but if you think that, you don’t know how the educationist establishment works. “He’s been so identified with one part of the movement, as an advocate,” a senior district administrator complained to the Los Angeles Times. “The operators of charter schools are going to make it difficult for him to be anything other than an all-out advocate.” Hmmmmm. This is bad?

The tensions here, between the educationists and the parents organizing charters, is typical of many cities in which charter schools are trying to survive. Strangling with red tape is the ultimate bureaucratic skill. The petitions required to start a charter here already have grown from 75 pages to nearly 500 pages. But isn’t that the point of government bureaucracy?

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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