LA charter schools risk denials by LAUSD rather than accept ‘bureaucratic demands’
Mike Szymanski and Sarah Favot | November 2, 2017
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An unprecedented number of charter school petitions could be denied next week because Los Angeles charter leaders are standing up against district policies they say require increasing amounts of time and money to satisfy and take away resources from the classroom.
While the district says the policies are needed to hold charter schools accountable, a coalition of charter leaders say the rules unduly limit the autonomy afforded charter schools under state law and their ability to offer a high-quality education.
The district’s charter schools division has recommended that 14 schools’ petitions be denied, including three new schools that could have accommodated 2,000 students. The existing schools recommended for denial, many of them high-achieving and serving low-income and minority students, have nearly 4,600 students.
While the schools could appeal any rejections to the Los Angeles County Board of Education, they must first go before LA Unified’s school board, and board member Nick Melvoin is hoping the district will reach a compromise with the charter leaders before Tuesday’s meeting.
In an interview, Melvoin said he wants to move from a “compliance-driven mindset to one of creativity and collaboration,” so that charters will be held accountable but also will have room to innovate.
“It’s been a problem that’s been exacerbated over the course of a decade as that mistrust and division have grown. We’re trying to heal it,” he said.
“My hope would be that district and charter partners can reach an agreement that puts kids first.”
Already, schools throughout the district are preparing parents, teachers, and students for the news on Tuesday that their schools may be denied, and explaining that the schools won’t be closing and can be authorized by the county or the state after LA Unified rejects their petitions.
Meanwhile, a coalition of charter groups continues to work behind the scenes with the school district’s charter division to figure out ways to simplify the procedures and language for the largest charter authorizer in the country. Independent charter schools are publicly funded but are authorized by their local school districts, counties, or the state. Each entity has its own required policies for charter schools it authorizes.
“The district is working on a list of policies that could relate to charter schools that is non-exhaustive,” said Emilio Pack, founder and CEO of Stem Preparatory Schools, who has helped lead efforts since April to work with district officials to change the charter language. “I am hopeful, and we are still working on it, and we want to get to a ‘yes’ to approve all the schools.”
Pack found out this week that a new school he is seeking to open in South LA, STEM Prep Elementary School, had been recommended for denial by the school district’s charter division staff because he wasn’t including language that the district requires — including agreeing to the district’s ability to change the rules at any time.
“It would be irresponsible for me to include language in our school charter that would include policies that the district hasn’t even invented yet,” Pack said Thursday in a media call.
In a statement signed by the charter schools, they said, “After working for many months with LAUSD to solve these issues, we stand by the reasonable policy updates we’ve proposed that are simply necessary for us to keep providing a high-quality education to our kids. We are committed to running schools that put student and teacher needs ahead of bureaucratic demands.”
Four of the seven members of the school board were elected with the support of charters, and they form a majority that could reject the staff’s recommendations and approve the schools, even without the required language.
But last month the board unanimously voted to turn down a renewal petition for Lashon Academy, a high-performing charter school that offers the only Hebrew-language dual immersion program in the city. The district staff had recommended denial because Lashon’s petition didn’t have the district-required language. Lashon has appealed the decision to the county Board of Education, which is seen as having less stringent requirements than LA Unified.
Magnolia CEO Caprice Young has two schools facing denial on Tuesday, which could affect nearly 600 students.
“Having something like this happen to our schools is a big disruption, and there’s a lot of concern, but the parents know we are doing something right with the students,” Young said.
Pack’s STEM Prep and the two Magnolia schools are among the schools working to change the district’s language for charters, along with Equitas, Alliance, and KIPP schools. Eight Alliance schools are recommended for denial, as is a new Equitas school.
Six KIPP schools are up for a vote Tuesday, and they all have been recommended for approval, as well as KIPP’s proposal for a new school planned for more than 1,000 students in District 5 in East Los Angeles. It is one of only two new charter schools that the district staff has recommended approving. The other is for PRIME School, to serve grades 6-12 in Local District South.
“We have 14 charters in LA Unified and we want to continue to stay within LA Unified,” Marcia Aaron, CEO of KIPP LA Schools, said on a media call Thursday. “I would not be spending hours and days and weekends and evenings trying to negotiate if I didn’t want to be.”
Aaron said KIPP has three full-time staff members just to focus on LA Unified, and 10 who work on compliance issues.
Aaron’s schools are being approved with the caveat that they meet “benchmarks,” which are changes they have to make to their petition and re-submit it in a month, but she said the district has still not made those clear.
“There are things that we don’t understand,” Aaron said. For example, the district asked to include language that KIPP schools would form school site councils, which they already have.
School site councils include equal numbers of teachers and parents to help decide how to spend discretionary money coming to the school. “We’ve been doing that all along, so I’m confused about that. We don’t understand many of the benchmarks they have put forward.”
The school district, in anticipation of Tuesday’s meeting and questions for the charter division, issued a statement saying, “As the nation’s largest authorizer of charter schools, LA Unified has established positive and collaborative relationships with our charter operators. At the same time, we must ensure that the independent charters we oversee are safe, publically accountable and provide learning environments that support student success. While we cannot speculate on what will happen at Tuesday’s board meeting, we remain committed to providing options for our students and families.”
Cassy Horton, managing director for regional advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association, said the whole process remains murky with the district.
“We are looking for a stable authorizing environment,” Horton said. “No matter what happens on Tuesday, folks are committed to making improvements to policies that we believe are reasonable and straightforward.”
So far, those discussions have not included filing a lawsuit, as the charter group has had to do in the past with LA Unified.
‘A LOT OF UNCERTAINTY’
One of the requests the charters are seeking, Pack said, is allowing an approved charter school to co-locate on a district school’s campus for the duration of its five-year approval, rather than having to apply every year for available space on district property.
“It causes a lot of uncertainty not knowing how many classrooms we’re going to have,” said Pack, who said the current policy keeps charters from working collaboratively with district schools or applying for grant money to improve facilities.
Pack said the charters and the district have been able to reach compromises in language involving health and safety, transitional kindergarten, special education, and insurance issues.
One sticking point is an increased authority that the district gives its own Office of Inspector General, which helps the charter division investigate charters when they are up for renewal.
The charter schools want the OIG office to stay within state and federal guidelines. Some of the charter groups said they feel that the district’s OIG office has investigative overreach comparable to the FBI, and that is unnecessary.
Aaron said that KIPP is not pushing back on the OIG issue and that it could be a reason for the recommendation for approval for all the KIPP petitions.
In the statement signed by the charter schools, they said, “We have known that seeking better policies could cause complications for our petitions — this is a risk we have been willing to take.”
*This article has been updated. There are two new charter schools that the district is recommending for approval.