LOS ANGELES — George McKenna has been in the business of educating young people for a long time.
He began teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1962. In 1979, he became principal at George Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles.
When he got there, the school was known more for gang fights and drug dealing than it was for educating students, but McKenna turned things around.
His work at Washington Prep became the subject of a made-for-television movie in 1986, starring Denzel Washington as McKenna.
He now represents South Los Angeles on the school board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, a district often at odds with charter schools.
So it was interesting to hear McKenna speak out in favor of charter schools at a hearing before the NAACP’s Task Force on Quality Education Feb. 9 at Los Angeles Police headquarters downtown.
“Black people need an alternative to underperforming public schools,” McKenna told the task force as the first speaker during the hearing.
He went on to say that a high-performing public school with a large population of black students has become the exception rather than the rule.
“When a school works, they make a movie about it,” he said to laughter from the crowd. “You wouldn’t make a movie about an airplane that works, because it’s supposed to.”
McKenna stressed the importance of fostering an environment of collaboration, rather than competition, between public and charter schools.
But public school parents and teachers expressed concern that charter schools, which are privately run and publicly funded, are not held to the same standards as public schools, leading to unfair practices.
Mark Ramos, an LAUSD teacher, claimed that charter schools “poached” his special education students in order to obtain more funding, and then sent them back when it was time for testing.
“They would be gone for a few months, and then they would come back to my classes, saying ‘Mr. Ramos, I can’t learn over there,’” he said in the public comment session at the end of the hearing.
And the misgivings of public school teachers are not confined to LAUSD.
Mike Rodriguez, who teaches world history and ethnic studies at Spurgeon Intermediate School in the Santa Ana Unified School District, also said the expansion of charter schools was short-changing his students.
“I’m totally for the moratorium,” he said. “In this year alone, two charter middle schools opened up within a half-mile radius of my school. They’re taking funds away from the public schools, which means fewer teachers for our students, many of whom are from a high-poverty background.”
Rodriguez said that since charter schools do not have democratically elected boards, they are not beholden to the community in the same way as the public schools.
“We need to look at how transparent these charter schools should be,” he said. “Just last year, in one of these schools that started this year, three teachers and the entire custodial staff quit in one week because they thought they were getting overworked and underpaid. That’s not a sustainable model.”
Rodriguez said that there is no research that shows that charter schools are sending more students of color to college than public schools, but charter school advocates disagree.
According to statistics from the California Charter Schools Association, 35 percent of African-American and Latino students at charter schools applied for schools in the UC system, compared with 19 percent of those students at traditional schools.
“When we look at the overall student achievement data, you’ll see that charter schools are, by and large, outperforming their district counterparts,” said Laura McGowan-Robinson, the association’s senior vice president for regional advocacy.
“We should look at what’s working for African-Americans and see how it can be shared across the board, rather than shutting these schools down,” McGowan-Robinson said. “I think it’s misguided to stop something that’s working. We should’ve done the research first and then determined what our position should be.”