The Fight Over Charters in LAUSD School Buildings: What’s Really Happening

Los Angeles could soon ban charters from nearly half of the district’s school buildings. But experts say the policy isn’t about what’s best for kids.

LAUSD board president Jackie Goldberg (left) and board member Rocio Rivas questioned district officials about new charter school policies at a meeting last Tuesday. (Ben Chapman)

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Los Angeles charter school operator Alfredo Rubalcava can’t sleep at night. 

Like other educators in Los Angeles, the CEO of Magnolia Public Schools is awaiting the unveiling of a new policy limiting the use of nearly half the city’s school buildings by independently run charter schools.

But with LAUSD superintendent Alberto Carvalho on the verge of issuing the new policy, Rubalcava is not sure where he’ll be holding classes next year.

“It’s weighing on me,” said Rubalcava, who has submitted six requests for space in LA Unified school buildings. “We don’t know what’s coming.”

LAUSD’s school board in September gave Carvalho a directive to craft a policy barring charter collocations in schools in three categories providing special support to students, including social services and resources for Black students. The board is expected to discuss the issue Tuesday. 

The board’s directive was a dramatic escalation of a longstanding fight over the use of the district’s school space by charters. A 2000 state law compels districts to provide space for charters, which are publicly funded and operate tuition-free.

But experts are questioning the need for the policy at a time when LAUSD enrollments have shrunk drastically leaving empty and underused classrooms. Carvalho has suggested some schools might have to be closed if the trend isn’t reversed. Charter schools in Los Angeles have also lost students but not as dramatically as district schools.   

It’s all about money, experts said.  

Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier, pointed out both district and charter schools are funded by the state on a per-pupil basis. Shrinking enrollments mean shrinking school budgets.

“If the district passes a policy that makes it more difficult to operate for charter schools, in the grandest of terms. that’s good for the district,” Polikoff said. “If fewer kids enroll in charter schools and those kids instead enroll in the district schools, they’ll get more money to operate. They’ll be able to hire teachers or not lay off teachers.” 

But Polikoff questioned whether the policy is centered on “who’s actually serving kids the best. We would like to think that’s what is always driving policy, but isn’t.”  

Margaret Raymond, director of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, said the school board’s decision to prevent the collocation of charter schools is best understood as a tactic to preserve market share.

“This roughly goes under the heading: ‘you can’t play with my toys.’ It’s what happens when monopoly providers are facing serious competition,” said Raymond.

“It’s an assumption that somehow the current local education agency is the only legitimate user of public investments in facilities,” she added.

Raymond also questioned whether the policy is about what’s best for students. 

“When you prioritize survival of institutions over the outcomes of the customers they serve,” said Raymond, “you’re taking a very, very short run calculus that has desperate long run consequences.”

But parents and educators in LAUSD buildings that are co-located said conflicts over space in schools are significant.

Maria Mikhail, whose son is a junior at Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets high school, said charter programs in the building have consumed valuable space needed by the district school, depriving students of classrooms and outdoor space.

“Our kids are losing classrooms,” Mikhail said. “We don’t have a lot of enrollment, we’re losing kids. And I feel like there should be plenty of room for everyone to share.”

Mikhail’s husband, Peter, said charter programs in the Westchester campus have benefitted from renovations and new paint, while spaces occupied by the district school have not.

“It’s disheartening for the kids, because the kids see this happening,” he said. “They just don’t really have a voice.”

Angelica Solis-Montero, whose two children attend Gabriella Charter School in Echo Park, worries the new policy will worsen the situation by pitting charter school families and educators against those from district schools.

My concern is that this resolution will make it harder to have workable conversations,” about sharing school buildings, said Solis-Montero. 

The placement of charter schools in district buildings is a common feature of large, urban districts like Los Angeles. New York City engages in the practice as well, and conflicts over space there have recently intensified after years of battles over classrooms. 

Teachers’ unions in Los Angeles and New York have sought to limit the practice, arguing districts should instead invest in existing school programs rather than offer space to independently run charters. The teachers’ union in Los Angeles urged the passage of the board’s resolution. 

Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab and Research Professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, said LAUSD is under financial pressure from dropping enrollment funding as well as the loss of federal pandemic aid

Data collected by Roza’s team found staffing levels at LAUSD have continued to grow in recent years, even as enrollment plummeted. Reasons for declining enrollment include a declining birthrate and outflow of families from the city, she said, and a host of other factors beyond the district’s control. 

Public school enrollment is plunging nationwide, with cities such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco also experiencing declines, Roza said.  

Roza said she was sympathetic to the district’s efforts to keep its space and make itself attractive to families that might otherwise choose charter schools or other schooling options.

“I think it’s not unreasonable for the district to try to keep kids so that they have fewer disruptions in finances,” Roza said. “At the same time, another way to keep kids is to give them choices that they prefer.”

Arelia Valdivia, executive director of Reclaim Our Schools LA, a coalition of community and labor groups supporting the policy, said it will protect valuable programs serving the city’s most vulnerable students.

“We want to make sure that there is a process to ensure that our public schools are first able to serve the students that are already enrolled before offering the space to collocating charters,” she said.

Valdivia said the district has made a huge investment in programs like the Black Student Achievement Plan and the Community Schools Initiative over the last few years. “We want to ensure that those programs are allowed to succeed and thrive,” she said.

A meeting of the board’s charter school committee last Tuesday to collect community input on the policy was dominated by charter school educators who pleaded with the board to reconsider the change.

Keith Dell’Aquila, who is Vice President, Greater Los Angeles Local Advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association, said at the meeting that the district had not responded to requests for consultation with the superintendent.

Dell’Aquila said his group is ready to take legal action if the new policy violates the state law compelling districts to provide charters with space. “The preferred option is always to work with this district and build partnership,” he said.

David Tokofsky, a former board member who testified at Tuesday’s meeting, called it “a shame” that the district, which has so much empty space, has not figured out a way to house both charters and district schools, and maximize the return from unused classrooms.

“It’s wasting a lot of energy and not bringing enough creativity to the table,” Tokofsky said.

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