As the L.A. School Board Votes on a Resolution That Would Call for a Freeze on New Charter Schools, Inside the Debate — and Backlash — That’s Roiling America’s Second Biggest District
Tuesday’s L.A. Unified school board vote on a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools is the latest fallout in the battle against charters that engulfed the district during the six-day teacher strike. But despite scant detail on the resolution’s origin and impact, advocates believe it poses an opportunity for an inclusive community discussion on charters’ value and place in the public school system.
The resolution, announced by District 7 board member Richard Vladovic last Wednesday, was a key element in L.A. Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles’s agreement one day earlier that ended the strike. If passed, it would direct the superintendent to pursue a moratorium on new charter schools in the district, and it also would require the school board to call on state officials to study the financial impact of charters on the district to inform revisions to the state’s charter law. Four of the six board members — the majority of whom were elected with charter organization backing — would have to approve it.
“To think through all of the perspectives on the issue in a thoughtful and in a thorough manner, and getting less than a week between the resolution’s public announcement and its voting, makes that difficult,” District 6 board member Kelly Gonez told LA School Report on Monday. “But as an individual board member, I’m going to do everything possible to get all of the information I need to be well informed.”
How the resolution came about during the negotiations and how it would affect the 110,000 students in the district’s 224 independent charter schools is unclear. Uncertainty and unrest are already being seen through extensive social media campaigns and two rallies scheduled before today’s vote.
But education reformers and some board members say this resolution does offer a silver lining: a chance to push for new evaluation measures, replace rhetoric with facts, and bring parents’ opinions to the table.
“This is a call to action,” said Myrna Castrejón, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association. “This is the beginning of a conversation around how do we get this [public school vision] to come to fruition — and what role do charter schools play.”
The proposed moratorium wouldn’t affect already-established charters, but it’s not explicitly outlined in the resolution what it could mean for new or expanded schools, or how long a moratorium could last.
UTLA last Tuesday listed a resolution as the first item in its summary of wins in the new agreement, even though it’s not in the tentative contract. And UTLA posted resolution language that same day, before Vladovic had formally proposed his own. While UTLA’s post looks fairly similar to Vladovic’s resolution, there are some differences: namely, that the union says the resolution is asking for a charter cap — a limit on the number of new schools that could be approved — rather than a moratorium, or temporary pause on any new schools.
Neither UTLA nor Vladovic responded to LA School Report’s requests to clarify the discrepancies. Vladovic during the strike called himself a “founding member of UTLA” on Twitter. He’s also regularly approved charters in the past, voting yes on more than 80 percent of last year’s new charter school petitions, according to CCSA data.
The Charter Schools Act of 1992 made California the second state to allow educators, community members, parents, or other groups to create an alternative type of public school. California, unlike several other states, does not have a cap on charter schools.
But some 25 years later, there hasn’t been a reframing for what L.A. Unified’s needs are in 2019 in relation to charters, Gonez said. So she sees a possible study as “a legitimate conversation.”
“Our schools were overcrowded; we had higher birth rates” back then, Gonez said. “And now we have more choices for families: magnets, dual language programs, schools of advanced studies. We’re living in a different ecosystem now than we were. So I think it’s really important to take a step back and look at the impact of charters on our communities.”
L.A. Unified has lost more than 245,000 students in the past 15 years — about 35 percent from transfers to charter schools, and the rest to lower birth rates, dropouts, and transfers out of the district. Independent charter school enrollment rose steadily between 2013 and 2018, CCSA reported, though traditional school enrollment is declining by at least 12,000 students a year. There were 10 new charters approved by the LA Unified school board last year, a district spokeswoman confirmed.
Many charter advocates say they aren’t opposed to taking a fresh look at charter accountability; they welcome it, even, if it’s in the interest of students. But organizations like CCSA are viewing this upcoming resolution as a way to re-up calls for charter policy protections, too.
Charters have largely outperformed their peers, even though they get close to $2,000 less in per-pupil funding than district schools. About 48 percent of Los Angeles charter schools yield significantly larger learning gains in reading, while 44 percent do so in math, according to a CREDO study. Charter students also benefit from an average 50 extra days of learning in reading and an additional 79 days of learning in math annually. Those number could be skewed, however, by the fact that charters can draw students who are already high-performing, said Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at UC Berkeley.
But the way charters are reviewed is outdated. Since the state got rid of the Academic Performing Index in 2014, it “has not updated actual charter renewal criteria to match up with the new Common Core state standards,” a CCSA spokeswoman said. “It is a huge problem for our schools because it leaves them vulnerable to being closed over political fights. … It’s easier to shut down or close charter schools if you don’t have a clear, agreed-upon parameter in terms of performance and what they should be doing.”
The resolution also brings the opportunity to talk about evaluating all schools. A trio of local advocacy organizations has called for expanding the resolution’s accountability and transparency focus to district schools as well as charters. Kids Coalition, Parent Revolution, and Speak UP plan to present a resolution amendment during today’s meeting calling for a “consistent” public charter school renewal policy that emphasizes “student improvement and student outcomes,” “parent-friendly district school transparency policies,” and new district policies that reward high-performing public charter and district schools.
The district has not shown “vigor” in addressing inequities in district schools, making a charter-only target inappropriate, the groups wrote in an op-ed, pointing out that only 38 percent of L.A. Unified graduates are deemed college or career ready on the state’s accountability measurement tool. Parent Revolution in a tweet also spotlighted low achievement in Vladovic’s district, where it said 52 percent of the elementary schools are rated in the lowest two categories — red or orange — in English language arts performance on the California School Dashboard.
Cool, cool, cool. Here’s the performance of students in district schools in your school board district from last year. https://t.co/v3PmDT0JGC … Will there be reflection and analysis of the impact of the district on the children that attend this schools?
— Parent Revolution (@parentrev) January 23, 2019
“We agree with UTLA’s call for charter accountability and charter transparency, and we think that there’s good work that can be done collaboratively on that front,” Ben Austin, executive director of Kids Coalition, told LA School Report. But “that rubric should be applied to all public schools. All public schools should be fundamentally accountable for the outcomes of students.”
Getting past rhetoric to facts
While charter school advocates and district leaders are eager to talk about the future of charters in L.A. Unified, the subject has been mired by politics and divisive rhetoric — especially during the strike.
The resolution provides a platform to cut through the rhetoric and get to the facts, Castrejón said. “It’s all very politicized, and we’re never going to escape that in the end,” she said. “Everyone has the intent to serve students well, but we focus on different ways to get there. And part of what we can do is … to help people understand the true story.”
One flashpoint is the public-vs.-private debate. The union has labeled charters as “privatization” schemes, purporting that they siphon away money from district public schools and into corporations. Charters are often philanthropically supported by wealthy foundations, such as The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.
Even the day after the tentative contract agreement, when the mayor called for both sides to put away divisive language, the union tweeted: “We were able to wrest major concessions from a billionaire superintendent intent on privatizing the district.”
“This is fundamentally about the teachers union seeing charter schools as an existential threat to their power,” Kids Coalition’s Austin said.
Advocates say that mentality neglects the fact that L.A. Unified’s charters — although they are privately run and have more discretion around decisions involving curriculum, the length of the school day and year, and hiring and firing — are public schools and nonprofit. They “are open to all children, do not require entrance exams … may not discriminate, may not charge tuition [and] must achieve a racial and ethnic balance reflective of the District population,” according to the district website. They are typically not unionized.
Another area to clear up, advocates say, is how charters are largely blamed for the district’s declining enrollment and funding losses, as state funding follows students to their public schools.
Last year, only 13 percent of district enrollment loss was from families choosing charters, according to a Reason Foundation study. The decline is attributable as well to lower birth rates, dropouts, and transfers out of the district, driven in part by the rising cost of renting in Los Angeles. Experts say the district’s low achievement metrics are also a detraction.
About 1/2 of the loss of students is due to increased enrollments in charter schools, but about 1/2 due to decline in the birth rate as well as students dropping out of school or transferring to other school districts.
— Robin Lake (@RbnLake) January 15, 2019
Another argument is that charters are not being properly regulated or held accountable.
Fuller told LA School Report he doesn’t believe the district “holds their feet to the fire.”
“It’s been a hazy line because there’s technically public accountability, but L.A. Unified has never done a good job assessing the effectiveness of charter schools,” Fuller said, referencing findings from a study he co-authored. “The district has never been assertive in pursuing the question of ‘Are charters more effective than [traditional] public schools?’ I think that’s why people like Alex [Caputo-Pearl] say, ‘These are like private schools.’”
The school board approved 54 of the 59 independent charter renewal applications in 2017-18, according to the district.
A CCSA spokeswoman said in response that L.A. Unified is considered “a model authorizer in terms of holding schools accountable” with new charter petitions and charter renewal applications, which are required every five years. There are about 50 staff members in the district’s charter school division who divvy up caseloads.
By the time a petition goes to the school board for a vote — which follows about two months of overview by the charter division staff and “extensive back and forth,” like line-item, red-line edits and capacity hearings — “you can be confident that the [petitioned] school is high capacity, and that they’re going to be able to open the school in the next few years and do a decent job serving kids,” the spokeswoman said.
She added that once charters are approved, they have many of the same obligations as traditional schools, such as submitting budgets to the county and commissioning third-party financial audits. District staff visit each charter school at least once annually.
Ten of the 19 new charter petitions to the district made it to board approval in 2017-18, the district confirmed. Five were denied; four were withdrawn.
Gonez said it’s easy to forget that the charter school argument has shades of gray. “It’s not black and white, and unfortunately, when we are so ideologically polarized, most people don’t want to see nuance,” she said. The current rhetoric “makes it hard to have substantive conversations.”
She added that many parents have struggled with charters’ vilification. “I think there is willingness to address the very legitimate concerns we’re hearing [about charter growth], but there is also a request for more of a civil discourse. And a request for us to address these issues in a way where it doesn’t feel like we’re demonizing parents and families and educators.”
Getting parents a seat at the table
Advocates and education watchers agreed that this resolution poses an opportunity for parent insight that wasn’t available during the negotiations between UTLA and L.A. Unified.
“Parents were not at the table. Charters were certainly not at the table. And broader Los Angeles voters were not at the table,” Castrejón said. “We will definitely be part of the conversation [now].”
Thousands of charter school students, families, and community members will rally at L.A. Unified headquarters today to oppose a charter ban, followed by a pro-moratorium, union-backed rally. Parents will also be addressing the board during the discussion on the resolution.
The board meeting starts at 1 p.m. at the district’s headquarters. It will be livestreamed here.
A group of parents last week held their own news conference outside City Hall, saying their voices need to be heard when significant decisions are made about their children’s education, and asking for inclusion in local decision-making at their schools.
“We don’t want just to be spectators. We want to be part of the action,” said Evelyn Alemán, who has a child at Grover Cleveland Charter High School and is a member of the LAUSD Parent Advisory Committee.
Bielma Pérez, a charter school parent who has a first-grade son at Fenton Avenue Charter School in the east San Fernando Valley, told LA School Report last week at the news conference that she believes charters are being “attacked unfairly.”
“Charter schools should have the same opportunity [as] traditional schools to serve students,” she said in Spanish.
A mother of a special education student also took to Twitter to express concerns with the resolution, tweeting Saturday that her daughter’s charter school — the CHIME Institute — is an “innovative” school where her child “is fully included.”
These concerns and uncertainties emphasize the importance of getting — and keeping — the conversation going, Castrejón said.
“We will all have to continue to engage,” she said. “I’m optimistic, and we’re looking forward to addressing our vision and our concerns and advocating for our children in a way that is inclusive and not divisive. This is what democracy is.”
Disclosure: The 74, the parent organization of LA School Report, receives funding from The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.
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