LA School Board Ready to Rumble Over Charter Schools

By Bill Raden, a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Originally published at Capital and Main

The stage has been set for an apparent showdown between charter school operators and the Los Angeles Unified School District office charged with charter school oversight, when the LAUSD school board votes on an unprecedented 14 recommendations for charter petition denials at Tuesday’s special board meeting.

The meeting had originally been scheduled to consider 34 charter school petitions — including 28 renewals — as part of a routine formality, in which the board signs off on staff recommendations after months of rigorous vetting of the applications by its charter division.

Late last week, however, 12 of the 14 denials that were posted on the school board’s website were revealed to have been triggered after four defiant charter operators had refused to include mandated regulatory language in their petitions. The action, which consisted of the charters essentially writing in their own diluted versions of district rules, was widely seen as a signal of charter-industry impatience to get regulatory relief from the recently elected pro-charter board majority, after that industry had spent $9.7 million on the most expensive campaign in LAUSD board history.

“We have known that seeking better policies could cause complications for our petitions,” the schools’ CEOs admitted in a joint statement released Wednesday. “This is a risk we have been willing to take. We remain hopeful that the LAUSD board on November 7th will do the right thing for students, make decisions based on the academic, fiscal and governance quality of our schools, and approve our petitions.”

The gambit puts at risk eight schools from the district’s largest charter management organization (CMO), the 25-school Alliance College-Ready Public Schools franchise, and two schools from the mid-range Magnolia Public Schools group. Petitions for a new Equitas Academy charter and a new STEM Preparatory Elementary also triggered rejections.

Those CMOs are part of a larger, 17-member coalition known as the Los Angeles Advocacy Council that had been negotiating over the past year with the district to roll back so-called District Required Language (DRL). The boilerplate contract provisions, which are required by most charter authorizers, have been developed over the past 20 years by the district as a way to ensure that charter petitioners conform to both state and federal education codes, while providing a measure of transparency to stakeholders. The language covers everything from admissions policies to expulsion and disciplinary procedures, to compliance with state rules governing English language learners and special education guarantees.

The charters contend that recommendations by district staff are inconsistent with site visits made by the charter division and that the district’s Office of Inspector General exercises too much authority in charter school investigations that lack transparency, go on too long and too often result in technical “material revision denials” of otherwise academically sound programs. But the dispute also echoes a more fundamental philosophical conflict between the communitarian values of public schools and the corporate management style of charters.

Publicly funded but privately managed, charter schools are legally held to a far higher degree of accountability under the law in exchange for freedom from many of the rules that govern the operation of public schools. Charters are thus required to renew their petitions —which serve as both a kind of school constitution and bill of rights — every three or five years to show that they not only meet state-mandated minimum criteria for academic achievement but also demonstrate significant performance gains in student achievement. But because charters typically tend to see test scores as the only metric that matters to a renewal or revocation, whereas districts have a legal responsibility to weigh competing measures of financial and educational viability and social equity, authorizers and the authorized often find themselves at odds.

The present controversy was dramatically foreshadowed in September when pro-charter board member Ref Rodriguez was forced to resign the school board presidency after being charged with three felony counts connected to his alleged laundering of $24,000 of his own money in donations to his 2015 campaign.

Though the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has closed the complaint until the criminal charges are resolved, Rodriguez’s refusal to step down from the board leaves his fellow majority members in a hazy ethical light. A board reversal of the denial recommendations, which the pro-public school minority would presumably oppose, would require the tie-breaking vote of an accused felon to pass.

In a district that rarely rejects charter petitions, and whose 277 active charter schools makes LAUSD the largest district charter authorizer in the nation, risking rejection is probably a safe gamble for a charter. Should the board choose to stand by its charter division staff, the schools would simply appeal to the State Board of Education in Sacramento or the politically appointed Los Angeles County Office of Education, where only last year Magnolia received reversals after the previous LAUSD board rejected three renewals over financial improprieties arising from the chain’s ties to an alleged immigration fraud ring run by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Regardless of how the board’s new majority passes this first significant test of its mettle, the charter division is standing firm.

“We must ensure that the independent charters we oversee are safe, publically accountable and provide learning environments that support student success,” a district spokesperson said in a written statement on Thursday. “While we cannot speculate on what will happen at Tuesday’s board meeting, we remain committed to providing options for our students and families.”

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  1. Procopius

    Publicly funded but privately managed, charter schools are legally held to a far higher degree of accountability under the law in exchange for freedom from many of the rules that govern the operation of public schools.

    I stopped reading at this point. I don’t believe it’s true in California, at least in practice, and I know it’s not true in Michigan and many other states.

    1. L

      I agree. I would argue that that is *was* the claim made but in my own states Charter operators have steadily campaigned for a loosening of their, already minimal, oversight in the name of reducing burdens. And despite a terrible track record (including a few genuine mid-year bankruptices and degree fraud) they have received it.

      In my opinion these days the safest phrasing is:

      Publicly funded but privately managed, charter schools are legally held to a far higher degree of accountability under the law in exchange for freedom from [do not obey] many of the rules that govern the operation of public schools.

  2. Tom Stone

    Those LA Charter schools had best mind their manners, The LAUSD police have tanks…provided under the 1033 program.

  3. FiddlerHill

    Most of the problem charter schools, it seems to me, are the corporately-run charters. What a shock — when the overriding purpose is to make money, education suffers. But in the LAUSD, of the 282 charter schools, 228 are autonomous. I suppose some of those autonomous schools could be “for profit,” but I think most are non–profit, neighborhood ventures.

    My daughter spent her last seven years in one of those non-profit autonomous LAUSD charter school and came away — for the most part — with a very good education and is now excelling in her second year at an academically demanding international university. Virtually every one of her classmates was accepted at a college, among them Brown, Vassar, Bennington and major UC schools. Her school’s demographics mirrored exactly that of the public schools in LA — majority Hispanic, many English learners, 78% low-income, as measured by qualifying for subsidized lunches.

    My own experience was that the LAUSD board was very much hands-off. I occasionally had issues with the somewhat dictatorial co-directors of my daughter’s school and spoke at those times with the school district officer assigned to be the board’s liaison with my daughter’s charter school. I got the impression that officer visited the school a couple of times a year, monitored complaints and the school’s compliance with state mandates — but otherwise left the school to run its own affairs.

    Anyway — to come back to the NC story — I suspect most of the conflicts involve for profit charters, perhaps trying to escape mandates that cut into their profits.

  4. Buzz Arnold

    I’m fearful of the Charter School movement in general. Anything that says “for profit”has a different incentive. If the charter school is non-profit, then why not put the same energy into the public school ? Under funding the public school system is foolish. The best investment a country can have is in education.
    Nobody would deny that the public school system needs work. Is the answer to privatize that too ?

    1. lyman alpha blob

      If the charter school is non-profit, then why not put the same energy into the public school ?

      Exactly. And at one point that was supposed to be the whole point of charters – to develop new programs that would then be rolled into the public schools to make them better.

      Instead, the neoliberals have turned a once good idea into just another for-profit boondoggle.

  5. rqila

    Charters in LAUSD are not-for-profit by fiat; there are just 6 for-profit charters in CA (

    Profit-status isn’t the issue here so much as accountability and transparency. And segregation. As Buzz Arnold says, “…put the same energy into the public school….”.

    Parents don’t want this though, they want special-ness, seemingly. And charters don’t want this either because it allows for the cherry-picking that sustains the system. SPED, IEPs – educating one and all is an expensive proposition; sorting the ranks is how they extract nominal “excellence” at the expense of the whole.

    The rules-change that resulted in approval of all but 3 charters last Tuesday was all about SELPA and the administering of special education. It all always is.

    1. FiddlerHill

      Exactly how does a LAUSD charter school get to “cherry pick” its students — when admission by law is by lottery?

      As I noted in a comment above, I chose to send my daughter to a LAUSD charter. I did so when she moved from grade 3 to grade 4 and her class size went from 20 to 38. Grade 5 was going to have 40 students.

      I and a half dozen other parents “put the same energy” into lobbying our local school board to reduce class size. No one teacher can possibly teach effectively a class of 40 nine-year-olds. The administration’s response was to ignore us and then, when we got press attention, to propose INCREASING the size of K-3 classes as way (somehow) of off-setting the large class size in grade 4 and above. I and several of the other parents who organized that effort gave up and put our kids in charter schools — we weren’t prepared to sacrifice our kids’ educations while waiting for public school reform that never seems to happen.

      1. False Solace

        These two things don’t match:

        “I chose to send my daughter to a LAUSD charter”

        “admission is by lottery”

        If parent choice is involved in any way, the profile of charter school students will necessarily differ from the public school population, e.g. “cherry picking” or ending up with the most motivated students and parents. Which is the larger point that’s being made.

        1. rqila

          Precisely. The functional difference between the family/environmental circumstances of charter and regular district schools is astounding. That translates to extreme differences in support and any number of other, subtle, ancillary advantages.

          For example, having “given up” and segregated your children in a school of smaller class size, did you continue to advocate for that advantage for those remaining in the regular district schools? What is not special about the circumstances you managed to arrange for your children especially?

          I agree with you completely that all children deserve these smaller class sizes. All children. The “reform” being fought against by those opposing the privatizing influence of charter schools is the mentality that downplays the value of teacher labor.

          The result is segregation. The means is deskilling and devaluing the teaching population and Education as a fundamental human right for all.

        2. FiddlerHill

          Well — so what are we down to here? Blaming neighborhood charter school founders for giving frustrated parents a choice when a government-operated school system fails them? Blaming concerned parents for wanting another option and thus self-selecting themselves into helping charter schools “cherry pick” students from more motivated families because those families care? Do you not see how crazy this argument gets?

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