The absurdity of charter school oversight in LA
Caroline Bermudez | October 20, 2016
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Imagine a school that has 97 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. It is 98 percent Latino. Sixty-two percent are English-language learners. Despite these challenges, the school is thriving. On the Smarter Balanced Assessment, 54 percent and 50 percent of its students met or exceeded performance standards in English language arts and math, respectively, compared to 19 percent and 16 percent at nearby schools.
Yet the school faces threats of closure from the local school board over allegations of financial mismanagement. The claims are confidential and not shared with the public, so few people know if the allegations have merit.
If this were a traditional public school, there might be an outcry over misspending and maybe an official or two would be sanctioned or fired. But closing a thriving school serving poor children would never even be considered. Because the school in question is a charter, it’s a different story. Such is the case with Celerity Dyad and the Los Angeles Unified School District board.
A capricious, secretive and often politically motivated process of charter school oversight in Los Angeles is symbolic of the effort to reduce the educational choices many poor families have. Five charter schools in Los Angeles were denied although the LAUSD board noted their academic performance is strong. Keep in mind the schools were given only six days to address claims of wrongdoing or a lack of transparency before the meeting.
One charter network whose schools face closure, Magnolia Public Schools, was audited by the state of California in 2015 after past allegations of financial mismanagement. The audit, according to the Los Angeles Times, “criticized L.A. Unified for trying to shut down three campuses in Palms, Northridge and Bell using limited information and without giving Magnolia officials adequate time to respond to charges of mismanagement.” It said the district “may have acted prematurely.”
As I’ve written about before, the process of holding charter schools accountable looks less like due diligence and more like political grandstanding—complete with a board whose members have their own agendas. A telling example is the ban on new charter schools in Huntington Park. It is no coincidence the city’s mayor, Graciela Ortiz, is a member of United Teacher Los Angeles, a group whose anti-charter sentiment has been well-documented.
One charter network leader characterized the oversight process as “death by a thousand cuts.” LAUSD is penalizing charter schools for even minor administrative gaffes, such as the handling of food contracts, and putting up numerous roadblocks so as to discourage them from expanding. This from a district that misspent $450 million intended for low-income students, foster youths and English-language learners.
Closing down charter schools performing well for their students sends the message that political infighting carries more weight than the educational futures of needy children. It further alienates Black and Latino parents deeply disenchanted with a school system that is failing their children.
And the hypocrisy here is glaring.
The investigations into Magnolia and Celerity, another charter school network, are currently confidential. The public can’t weigh in nor can these schools defend themselves. What information has been gleaned is opaque and seems to have nothing to do with the academic performance of the schools in question. The Los Angeles Times reports:
“The underlying issues at Magnolia and Celerity that concern L.A. Unified are only hinted at officially. The district faults both organizations for not providing requested documents to investigators. Their listed deficiencies will include incomplete descriptions of job duties and of suspension and expulsion procedures.”
Are these infractions worth closing down schools? I cannot fathom a traditional public school ever being subject to such an investigation if it was doing well academically—or even if it wasn’t.
For instance, the superintendent of a tiny suburban Chicago school district is paid approximately $400,000 in salary and benefits to lead failing schools serving only 1,200 students. There have been no calls for his resignation or any investigations conducted by the district. If this was a charter school, this would be regarded as a clarion symbol of endemic fraud. Because it’s a traditional school, you don’t hear so much as a peep.
A flagrant double standard exists here. All schools, charter and traditional alike, should be held to high standards. When they fail to educate their students, they should be shut down. But if they excel, yet have some financial or operational problems, they must be allowed to rectify them, not endure onerous bureaucratic hoop-jumping.
California’s charter oversight process is convoluted at best—given a byzantine system of 324 local, county and state agencies acting as charter authorizers.
Charter school oversight is in desperate need of improvement. If a state audit doesn’t uncover significant wrongdoing but a local school board still raises flags, questions need to be asked about whether the oversight process works.
If the LAUSD board continues down this path, it will not only be seen as irresponsible, but tone-deaf to the wishes of thousands of low-income parents who are tired of being denied access to the few good schools available to them. A recent New York Times editorial said of charter schools:
“These schools, which educate only about 7 percent of the nation’s students, are far from universally perfect, and those that are failing should be shut down. But sound research has shown that, when properly managed and overseen, well-run charter schools give families a desperately needed alternative to inadequate traditional schools in poor urban neighborhoods.”
So much of this battle is being driven by fear—fear of losing money, control, jobs and face. But it doesn’t change the fact that parents will continue to flee traditional public schools until those neighborhood schools start better serving Black and Latino families. And those repercussions will be felt not only in classrooms, but in school board elections.
Caroline Bermudez is a senior writer at Education Post and former reporter at Chronicle of Philanthropy.