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LA Charter Schools Win Policy Changes That Give Them More Clarity, Avoid Most Denials

By Sarah Favot | November 8, 2017

LA Unified officials and school board members put politics aside Tuesday, agreeing to long-sought policy changes for charter schools and paving the way for unanimous board votes that ended up saving about a dozen independent charter schools from denials.

The changes to the rules that govern charter schools and who can make those changes will impact all future charter school petitions in the district, which oversees more charters than any in the nation.

In the past, district staff have drawn up the rules for charters — and maintained the right to change them at any time. The requirement that charters agree to the district’s ability to change rules the charters had already agreed to was one of the issues that prompted charter leaders to call for reforms.

The school board will now to get to vote on specific policies that charters must follow. The district’s charter division will draw up recommendations, and the board is expected to vote on them in April.

The district’s non-negotiables that charters agreed to be subject to are: inquires from the Office of Inspector General, compliance with the district’s modified federal consent decree regarding special education services, and that charter schools follow the district’s discipline policies.

In return, the charter schools will likely be able to enter into multi-year lease agreements at co-locations and will have the ability to go outside the district for special education services if they choose.

Acting Superintendent Vivian Ekchian announced the deal at the beginning of Tuesday’s board meeting, which drew 500 parents. She said the district had changed its recommendations on 18 petitions, all of which had been designated for rejection or had certain conditions attached because the charter operators would not agree to parts of the language that govern charters. A coalition of charter leaders have been working since April to amend the language, which they said impeded their efforts to offer a high-quality education to their students.

“The updated district-required language will apply to all charter petitions today and in the future,” Ekchian said. “It is important to note that no changes made to district language involves public accountability or student and staff safety.”

She added, “In LA Unified, our firm conviction is that all students deserve a quality education regardless of the type of school they attend.”

LA Unified has more charter schools than any other district in the nation. As of this fall, 18 percent of the 644,000 students in LA Unified are enrolled in nonprofit charter schools authorized by the district.

“I think we’ve really shown that we can make smart policy updates collaboratively that at the end of the day benefit kids, and if we can continue that momentum that’s really where we want to get that we’re working together,” said Emilio Pack, CEO and founder of STEM Prep Schools, who was involved in the negotiations and whose petition for a new charter school in South LA was approved.

“Any time you want to get to yes, you’ve got to compromise.”

“I feel good about the substance of what was accomplished, but I also feel good about the process,” school board member Nick Melvoin said after the meeting. Melvoin, who ousted the previous board president in the spring elections with support from charters, took a leadership role in getting the two sides to reach an agreement. The negotiations were conducted between the charter school operators and the Charter Schools Division staff and the superintendent’s office.

“We were able to get it done in what I think is a real collaborative spirit,” Melvoin said. One of his campaign promises was creating a more collaborative environment between the district and charter schools.

During Tuesday’s meeting, school board members George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson criticized the process, but in the end they voted to approve the district’s recommendations.

Notable Tuesday were the unanimous votes on all charter decisions, including three charter petitions that were denied. It was the first time since the new charter-backed majority took over in July that a board meeting was not marked by a 4–3 vote.

“I was not included nor asked for any input, and I encourage my colleagues to be inclusive and transparent so that all board members have input into this process,” McKenna said.

Melvoin said the involvement of other board members was limited because of the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law.

Kelly Gonez said she was not involved in the negotiations, and while she would like to be involved with a new task force on charters, she said she would give up any role so that members of the minority could participate.

“I am open to be involved, but it’s important that there be a diversity of voices,” Gonez said. “I welcome board members McKenna and Schmerelson, who expressed a desire to be included. I would think that their having a seat at the table would be more important than mine.”

The other two members of the board majority are board president Mónica García, who was involved in the negotiations, and Ref Rodriguez, who was not. Rodriguez has been indicted on felony charges related to campaign finance violations and accused of violating conflict-of-interest laws. His allies on the board have called on him to take a leave of absence, but he has refused. He has pleaded not guilty to the felony charges.

José Cole-Gutiérrez, who leads the district’s Charter Schools Division, said the talks provided charter schools with additional clarity.

“We continued to listen, and we continued to respond. As our acting superintendent noted, we did make some changes; however, those changes did not compromise our oversight, public accountability standards, or standards for student safety. We clarified some areas, and we think that’s important, but I think at the core of this is we continued to listen.”

As part of the new language, charters do not have to agree to enter into one-year co-locations under Prop. 39, which governs how charter schools share district space. Charter leaders say this opens up the possibility of multi-year agreements that coincide with charter school petitions that must be renewed every five years.

The language was changed to “not close the door on the possibility of multi-year agreements,” Melvoin said.

Pack said he hopes specifically the district’s policy regarding Office of Inspector General will be reviewed in the future.


Mike Szymanski contributed to this report.

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