The recent L.A. teachers’ strike highlighted the existential fight over the future of education, Jay Mathews writes. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
Columnist

I like much about United Teachers Los Angeles. The union had good reasons to strike for better working conditions in its district of 600,000-plus students. Teacher unions in general have benefited our country. Many of my favorite teachers were members, as was my mother.

But the Los Angeles union is wrong to blame the growth of public charter schools for problems in traditional public schools. Teachers are guardians of truth. They shouldn’t say that charters are a plot by billionaires to ruin public education.

The leaders of the most educationally successful charter networks are not profit-hungry tycoons. Most are experienced educators who have produced better schools and deeper learning by lengthening the school day and working harder to pick and train the best teachers. Some eventually get money from billionaires, but that doesn’t change the way they run their schools.

If union leaders don’t know this, they should learn. They often blame enrollment declines in urban schools on the lure of charters, independent schools supported by tax dollars. If that were so, why were those same enrollment declines happening before charters appeared in the 1990s? Then as now, parents were taking their children elsewhere because many urban schools were not giving them the time, encouragement and stimulation they needed.

United Teachers Los Angeles did not respond to my request for a comment.

Some urban school systems — the District is an excellent example — are cooperating with charters. The teachers’ strike won the L.A. school board’s support for a state study of charters, which is fine. But the union also wants a moratorium on new charters to stop what the union’s president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, calls “the unsustainable, destructive practice of unregulated charter school growth.” He has no message for L.A. parents who pay taxes and see no reason to deny their children seats in charter schools when there is already research showing the benefits.

The Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes reported in 2014 that 48 percent of Los Angeles charters performed significantly better in reading than traditional public schools and 44 percent significantly better in math. Thirteen percent of L.A. charters were significantly worse in reading and 22 percent significantly worse in math.

The California Teachers Association, the statewide union, urges voters to “put kids before profits.” Its ads say billionaires “have their own narrow education agenda to divert money out of our public schools and into their corporate charter schools,” even though 97 percent of California charter schools and 86 percent of U.S. charters are nonprofit. Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said public officials now rarely call charters private businesses, “otherwise we would not have 44 states with public charter school laws.”

I am happy California will soon outlaw for-profit charters, as the District has done. I like the fact that bad charters in places such as the District can be closed relatively quickly. Between 2012 and 2017, 26 D.C. charters were shut down. I have no problem with low-income D.C. students receiving tax-funded vouchers to attend private schools, but such places have very little room for such kids.

Charters are serving 3.2 million students, 10 times the number that use vouchers or tax credits to attend private schools. Why shouldn’t parents be allowed more charters if they want them? Nearly 80 percent say they want the option to choose their child’s public school. It will be interesting to see what presidential candidates say about this.

Jaime Escalante, who inspired me to become an education writer, was a United Teachers Los Angeles member. These days, charter and traditional public school teachers have adopted his techniques: lively and challenging lessons, extra help after school and in the summer, regular contact with parents. Both kinds of schools can coexist.

Los Angeles and the District have many charters but also plenty of fine district-run schools, such as School Without Walls High School and Columbia Heights Educational Campus in the District and the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies and the James A. Foshay Learning Center in Los Angeles.

If unions want to complain that most charter teachers are not union members and that some charters get money from billionaires, that’s accurate. But to say the educators who create and run charters are in it for profits and not kids is as wrong as wrong can be.

Most charters I know welcome visitors. Union leaders should ask to stop by. They will see what I mean.