LOS ANGELES — The new Broad Museum has received criticism for exhibiting a safe, market-friendly collection of familiar names, but the protest held in front of the museum on opening day had nothing to do with art. Organized by United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents LA public school teachers, the protest took aim at the Broad Foundation’s support of charter schools. With signs reading “Invest in Public Schools, not Billionaires’ Vanity Projects” and “POP: Privatizing Our Public Schools,” about 700 protesters gathered in front of the museum last Sunday from 9am until noon, according to Michael Blasi, a traveling visual arts teacher for Los Angeles Unified’s Elementary Arts Program.
Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, have been major supporters of charter schools in Los Angeles, investing $144 million in them so far, according to the couple’s foundation. However, a confidential report obtained by the Los Angeles Times, titled “Great Public School Now,” outlines a plan that would place 50% of LA Unified School District students into charter schools over the next eight years at a cost of $490 million.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but independent, have become one of the most divisive issues in American education recently. Supporters say charter schools offer an alternative to poorly-run public schools controlled by ineffectual teachers’ unions. Opponents say the schools are privatizing education, syphoning resources that could be used to benefit public schools, and are staffed with non-union, inexperienced teachers. LAUSD currently has 207 charter schools with 100,000 students enrolled, more than any other district in the nation, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“I am not unilaterally opposed to community-based charter schools, but what’s happening now is not community based,” artist Meg Cranston told Hyperallergic when reached by phone earlier this week. Cranston, who was not at Sunday’s action, has a unique perspective since she herself is a charter school parent, and helped establish the Ocean Charter School.
“When I got involved in a charter, a lot of us felt that the problem with the publics was that they couldn’t respond to parents, they couldn’t be open to the community. A lot of us wanted to be involved in an everyday way in our children’s lives, and the publics seemed too bureaucratic,” Cranston said. “None of us could have imagined what has ended up happening — the publics being taken over and controlled by massive corporations for the purposes of profiting. Parents, teachers, communities, elected representatives will be totally left out of the picture. This is not a teachers union issue. It is a public versus big business issue.”
“In the past, charters and publics could peacefully coexist at least marginally,” she said of the difference between her “mom and pop” charter and Broad’s vision. “What Broad is proposing is an altogether different thing. It is a take over of public education by private individuals who stand to massively profit from it. It’s like Pablo Escobar naming himself Chief of Police.”
Blasi and Jay Davis, a visual arts teacher in South LA, also characterized the issue as one of applying business concepts to education. “The plan calls to increase what they call the charter schools’ ‘market share’ of LA’s school age kids through fundraising 1/2 billion dollars to open new charter schools in Los Angeles,” the two teachers told Hyperallergic via email. “First of all, we as educators do not see our students in terms of market share. We work together as a school district to provide a high-quality equitable education to all the students of Los Angeles. We do this through a school board that is democratically elected and held accountable publicly.” Blasi and Davis contrast this with charter school’s board of directors who “often hold their at-will employees to silence in terms of the state of their schools, discouraging communication and dialogue.”
Ironically, Blasi and Davis view Broad’s commitment to charter schools as a major threat to arts education.
“The competitive model of reform that is being promoted by Broad and his group looks at schools through a capitalist lens of survival of the fittest,” they say. “Many charter and traditional public schools across the country are compelled to prioritize weeks of testing at the expense of arts-rich curriculum that honors the whole child’s expressive potential and humanity. As professionals who instead promote educational research-informed approaches instead of market-inspired ones, we know that the transformative power of arts-rich schools is supported by empirical data.”
The Broad Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.