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How charter schools went from a ‘novelty’ to dominate the conversation of LAUSD

Craig Clough | September 13, 2016

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This is part of a series looking at the various types of schools in LA Unified. For facts, comparisons and maps of charters in LA, click here. Follow the series with magnet schools and affiliated charters.

Independent charter schools have come to often dominate the conversation surrounding LA Unified. Proponents hail them as a savior to the district; their detractors blame them for the district’s financial woes.

The California Charter Schools Act was passed in 1992, but it took more than a decade for charters to become a significant part of the district. Part of the reason is the original act only allowed for 10 schools per district, regardless of its size, and it wasn’t until 1998 that the law was amended to allow for unlimited expansion.

By the 2001-02 school year, there were only 13 independent charters authorized by the district.

“At the time I came on the board, charters were seen as kind of a novelty and a place to send your principals who were a little too creative for their own good,” said Caprice Young, who served on the LA Unified school board from 1999 to 2003 before founding the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) in 2003. Today she is CEO of Magnolia Public Schools, which operates eight independent charters authorized by LA Unified.

David Tokofsky served on the board from 1995 to 2007 and said in the early days he was a supporter of charters, but when large charter management organizations (CMOs) started to open multiple schools around the turn of the century, his opinion changed.

“Most of the people at that stage (in the ’90s) were respected LAUSD veterans. I think in the machine politics of government organizations, they were more individualistic than if you were in this guy’s machinery or that guy’s machinery. They were mavericks,” said Tokofsky, now a consultant for the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.

“They were people who thought they knew some stuff about good schools. They knew the district well, but they felt that the standard operations systems were not necessarily maximizing creativity. That’s what the law was all about. It wasn’t about that you are free from all regulations of government.”

Irene Sumida is executive director of Fenton Charter Schools, which today has five schools in its network. When Fenton Avenue Charter converted from a traditional school to a charter in 1993, it was only the seventh charter school in the district.

“I think the school district saw us as a novelty or an experiment that might succeed, or that might not. I cannot say that I felt real support for what we were doing, and we were very much treated like outsiders,” Sumida said.

After the charter law was changed to allow for unlimited expansion, slowly more CMOs began to open multiple schools in the district, and that is when both supporters and detractors started to take notice. PUC Schools, which operates 16 schools today, opened its first school in 1999. Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, which operates 27 schools in the district, opened its first school in 2004. Magnolia Public Schools opened its first school in 2002.

In 1999, both Dorsey High School and Crenshaw High School converted to independent charters but within a few years converted back to being traditional schools.

“Partly because the whole Dorsey cluster and Crenshaw cluster gave up their charter status people kind of thought, ‘Well, maybe this charter school thing is going to stay just being a novelty.’ It really started hitting the stratosphere in 2003 to 2008,” Young said.

In 2003-04, there were 24 charters in the district. By 2007-08, there were 114.

“From ’03 to ’07 is when the expansion started, and somewhere around ’05 there grew a little more antagonism,” Tokofsky said.

In 2003, Granada Hills High School converted to an independent charter school, and Sumida said that started to turn some heads.

“Honestly, for me, when Granada Hills High School decided to become an independent charter school, I really feel that things changed, even for Fenton,” Sumida said. “I thought that there was much more pressure on us and it was just a very different climate. It just seemed to make the district more aware of what was happening, that they may lose some of their comprehensive high schools. I think it shook them up that a high-performing school like Granada was leaving them.”

Tokofsky pointed to Young and the formation of CCSA as a turning point, because the organization helped court big donors like the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation to fund CMOs.

“Caprice changed the discourse when she lost the board election and went to head up the charter association and the Walmart money came in. That’s the game changer, when it went from individual charters to multiples,” he said.

By the 2008-09 school year there were 137 independent charters with roughly 60,000 students enrolled, and the growth has continued. In the 2015-16 school year there were 221 charters authorized by LA Unified with more than 101,00 students enrolled. This school year there are 228 independent charters with more than 107,000 students — 16 percent of the district’s 665,000 total K-12 students.

• Tomorrow: Alliance College-Ready Public Schools: A replicable model or unique success?

Disclosure: LA School Report is the West Coast bureau of, which is funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation.

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