‘Exorbitant’ fees for a ‘dearth’ of special education services — An LA school may lose its charter for fighting back against LAUSD policies
Sarah Favot | October 2, 2017
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An independent charter school says LA Unified charges too much for special education services and offers too little, so it wants to hold onto the option to get those services elsewhere.
But because the San Fernando Valley school hasn’t indicated who will provide those services — and hasn’t promised to use LA Unified’s — it may lose its charter at Tuesday’s board meeting.
The district’s charter division has recommended denial of the five-year renewal petition for Lashon Academy, a K-5 charter school in Van Nuys. Academic performance is not one of the reasons, and the district called the school’s academic performance strong to moderate.
Lashon officials said the school received a “dearth of services” from LA Unified for their special education students in exchange for “exorbitant” fees.
“Restricting us from going to outside resources and having an opportunity to choose a (provider) that might better fit the needs of our students, it doesn’t make sense to us,” said Sara Garcia, Lashon Academy’s head of curriculum and instruction.
Lashon’s Executive Director Josh Stock told the district he has been looking for other special education services providers but hasn’t identified one yet. The district takes 30 percent to 35 percent of the money each school gets from the state and federal governments to serve students with disabilities. Garcia said Lashon’s staff is basically providing those services themselves with minimal help from the district.
Ten percent of Lashon’s students receive special education services, slightly lower than the district’s average.
Lashon’s petition is an example of an independent charter school pushing back against LA Unified policies in order to maintain autonomies that charter schools are afforded under state law.
Garcia said LA Unified was unwilling to negotiate its required policies, while the district’s Charter Schools Division maintained that Lashon was not being transparent and cooperative.
“A high-quality school is now in danger of being denied, all because it sought to update policies to better serve their students,” a California Charter Schools Association spokeswoman said. “This highlights a larger question impacting hundreds of charters in Los Angeles: Can the district work collaboratively with the schools it oversees to ensure that processes and policies are transparent, consistent, and focused on increasing student learning?”
WHAT IS A SELPA?
At the heart of the issue is what’s known as a SELPA — a Special Education Local Plan Area, which is the provider of special education services to students with disabilities.
All but two of the 224 charter schools authorized by LA Unified are part of the district’s SELPA, according to a district spokeswoman.
LA Unified’s SELPA must comply with a federal consent decree, which requires the district to track students’ special education records, known as Individualized Education Plans. Charter schools that are part of the district’s SELPA must do the same, using the district’s online information-tracking system.
José Cole-Gutiérrez, head of the district’s Charter Schools Division, said Lashon’s renewal petition doesn’t comply with the federal consent decree particularly because the school hasn’t committed to using the district’s system to track IEPs.
“It’s not a requirement that we could waive,” Cole-Gutiérrez said.
The two charter schools that are part of another SELPA found success seeking renewal from the county after being denied by LA Unified. Lashon leaders said they plan to appeal to the county Board of Education if their petition is denied on Tuesday.
“We gave in on a lot of areas, but there were two at the end of the day that we have to stand our ground on and what we believe is just not moving forward,” Garcia said. “I can look at my students, I can look at my parents and tell everybody I did the best I could.”
Dispute resolution is another area where the charter school is pushing back against district policies. LA Unified requires charter schools it authorizes to resolve disputes through binding arbitration. But Lashon wants to keep litigation as an option.
“Instead of proceeding to binding arbitration, the Charter School would agree to resolve any disputes persisting past the mediation stage, through any remedy available under the law,” Stock wrote to the district as part of the school’s charter renewal petition.
The district’s Charter Schools Division also raised concerns that Lashon’s demographics do not reflect its Van Nuys neighborhood and found that its student population is becoming increasingly white. Its white student population increased from 38 percent to 47 percent in 2016-17, while its Latino population declined from 57 percent to 47 percent.
But Lashon is the only Hebrew-language charter school in the city, and Garcia said of the white students, 53 percent are English learners and immigrants from countries like Russia and Iran and 45 percent are from low-income families.
In the school as a whole, 76 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch and 64 percent are English learners.
During the district’s last site visit to the school, it gave the school the highest possible score for student achievement.
In 2016, 65 percent of its third-graders were proficient in English language arts and 61 percent were proficient in math. Last school year, as fourth-graders, that same class improved their scores, to 78 percent proficient in English and 65 percent proficient in math, according to the new 2017 state test results released last week. English learners increased their scores by 12 percentage points in math and 7 percentage points in English in 2017.
OTHER CHARTERS ON THE AGENDA
Tuesday’s meeting will be the first time the new school board with its pro-reform majority will vote on a charter school renewal petition that has been recommended for denial.
In a district analysis of 166 votes on charter school renewal petitions from 2011 through April 2016, of the nine times the charter division recommended a denial, the school board approved renewal petitions five times — slightly more than half the time.
The charter division recommended approvals of renewal petitions 85 percent or more of the time, according to the district analysis.
Three other charter school renewal petitions will be taken up by the board on Tuesday: Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy, New Los Angeles Charter School, and Oscar De La Hoya Ánimo Charter High. All are recommended for approval by the Charter Schools Division.