OC School Reopening Reignites Debate Over Alternative Education, Charter Schools

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A protestor arrives to the California Policy Center's Parent Union rally on Aug. 4, 2020.

Waving signs and American flags, demonstrators turned out earlier this week to the Santa Ana offices of the California Teachers Association on the heels of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision last month to restrict classrooms to largely virtual, distance learning settings.

Many of the demonstrators who showed up to the teacher’s union building on Tuesday described themselves as parents who feel they’ve been left out of the decision making process around in-person versus virtual learning — a process they see as more responsive to bureaucratic and union interests than their kids. 

It isn’t the first time arguments around ‘choice’ have come up in debates over public education in Orange County.

This week’s rally was only the latest iteration of a larger, years-long argument by parents like these — who want options other than public schools — and see teachers’ unions as adversaries with an ability to determine their kids’ education when negotiating contracts with school districts.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A Santa Ana cyclist who wished to remain anonymous stops by and says in Spanish, “this issue is being politicized, we need to be safe when opening up schools. I see the frustration on both sides.”

Teachers’ unions up and down the state have recently protested the prospect of them returning to teach in-person classes, while the virus is still at large.

Neither a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association or the local Santa Ana Educators Association President Barbara Pearson responded to requests seeking comment for this story.

Will Swaim, president of the libertarian California Policy Center think tank, called the ongoing school reopening saga a “class struggle — no pun intended.”

Swaim and the protest’s organizers maintain virtual classes policies will detrimentally impact working class families with technological and homeschooling limitations, as well as students living with disabilities and special needs.

He said parents should have the option of having their kids return to in-person classes if they want to — just as they should have the option not to if some parents don’t feel it’s safe.

“Should parents have a one-size-fits-all system of education imposed on them?” he said.

Seeing institutions like teachers’ unions — many of which have largely spoken against charters — as driving these restrictions on in-person learning, Swaim said “the staff have a union, the teachers have a union … where are the parents in all this? Where’s their voice?”

Enter former Santa Ana city councilwoman and school board member Ceci Iglesias.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Ceci Iglesias, former Santa Ana council woman, speaks at the rally on Aug. 4, 2020.

One of the lead organizers of Tuesday’s rally, Iglesias, a Republican, has been a proponent of charter schools and the idea of choice and now is part of the Parent Union, a pro-charter school group run by the California Policy Center.

During her time on the Santa Ana Unified school board, Iglesias drew attention for her statements in support of charters and parents’ choice to send their kids there.

Iglesias didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story. 

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Protestors holding signs to recall Governor Newsom at the rally for parents wanting the schools to open for the 2021 school year. The parent union believes distanced learning will affect minority students the most and are beginning recall efforts for Governor Newsome.

Critics of charter schools say many of them drain public school districts of their funding and lack proper accountability and oversight — especially the ones in the U.S. that operate for profit. In 2018, former governor Jerry Brown signed a bill banning for-profit charters in California.

Proponents say charter schools are more autonomous, flexible with their approach to education and curriculums, and offer more pathways for low-income kids and students of color. 

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A protestor hands Anika, 10, and her sister Chloe, 8, a sign during the rally in Santa Ana, they are accompanied by their mother. The two sisters attend Orange County Classical Academy.

When it comes to schools reopening during COVID-19, Swaim said what parents want is the option to return their kids to in-person classes if they want to, as well as the option not to if some parents don’t feel it’s safe.

“If you don’t like it, don’t send your kid to school,” he said. “It should be voluntary.”

Santa Ana Unified School Board member Carolyn Torres, on the other hand, contends “your decision doesn’t only affect you.”

In the event a child does spread the virus to a vulnerable family member, Torres said, “you can’t walk back from it and say ‘oops, a couple people died.’”

“In this pandemic, people feel powerless, you want to have some kind of control in your life; but this is bigger than one individual,” she said.  “Everyone at a school site interacts with each other.” 

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Magdalena Macia, 5, a kindergartner from Orange County Classical Academy attends the rally with her mother, father and brother.

Swaim maintained that the virus doesn’t appear — according to studies — to affect children to the same extent it affects adults or at-risk populations.

He pointed to reports about YMCAs who managed scores of children throughout the pandemic but largely managed to prevent outbreaks through safety measures.

Torres, in turn, pointed to news reports like one out of Georgia that after a day of reopening for in person classes, one school had to send 260 teachers home to quarantine.

The adversary that some parents see in teachers’ unions is a “false divide,” Torres, a teacher herself, said. “There’s been this kind of thing where teachers are out for themselves — first of all there’s nothing wrong with them not wanting to get sick with a virus.” 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him bpho@voiceofoc.org on Twitter @photherecord.