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LA leaders take on common accusations against charter schools

Craig Clough | September 15, 2016

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utlaThis is part of a series looking at the various types of schools in LA Unified. This week the focus is on independent charters. Follow the series with magnet schools and affiliated charters.

They don’t take special education students. They screen during enrollment for students with high academics. They are funded by billionaires out to bankrupt the unions and take over LA Unified. They are unregulated monsters run amok on our school system.

There is no lack of accusations that are frequently hurled at independent charter schools. Since the first independent charter school was started in LA Unified in 1993, charters have over time become one of the most polarizing issues on the educational landscape. Whether it be their financial impact, enrollment practices or educational philosophies, there seems to be no shortage of critics.

• Read more about charters: How charters went from a ‘novelty’ to dominate the conversation of LAUSD, 9 questions and answers about LA’s charters and Alliance College-Ready Public Schools: A replicable model or unique success?

Last week the Washington Post ran an article that was heavily critical of charters in California, and it also cited an August report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California which found that 20 percent of all charter schools in California had enrollment policies in place that violate state and federal law.

While some of the accusations in the ACLU report are true of some charters or were true of some in the past, other accusations that are commonly thrown at charters are hard to prove one way or another or boil down to philosophical differences. In light of the recent high-profile criticism of California and LA charters, here is what several prominent charter leaders in Los Angeles had to say about the frequent accusations that are made against the charter movement.

Accusation: The ACLU report found many instances of enrollment violations regarding students’ academic performance, English proficiency and immigration status, despite the fact that charters are not allowed by law to consider these factors. 

Jacqueline Elliot, co-founder of PUC Schools: “Our movement is big. It has gotten huge, in fact, in LA and California and across the nation. And frankly, I don’t think we can expect that we are going to have perfection across the nation, and we are going to have charter schools that are doing things we don’t like and that are perhaps not legal, and it is our responsibility in the charter movement and also of the authorizers, which is how the legislation is set up, to weed out and stop those practices. But I do think that the vast majority of charter schools are run by dedicated educators who have integrity and who will abide by the law.”

Caprice Young, founder of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and CEO of Magnolia Public Schools: “If I did a Lexus Nexus Google search of every abuse at every school district in the state of California, the list would be about 40 times that long… What I would say in response to (the ACLU report) is that charters are required to have their entire enrollment procedure approved by whoever their authorizer happens to be. And almost all of the schools identified in the ACLU report were actually implementing the enrollment procedures that had been approved by their local school districts. So the issue is not charters, in so much as if they are complying with what they put in their charter, but the issue is really more a question of oversight and if the school districts feel comfortable having some guidelines in the context of charter school lotteries.”

Cristina de Jesus, president and CEO of Green Dot Public Schools California: “I think it’s unfortunate that a few bad actors are being used to paint the entire charter sector with a broad brush. They are not representative of the great majority of charters who are actually changing the odds for kids across the country every day. I can say in general, Green Dot feels that bad actors should suffer the consequences if they are employing policies and procedures that are not on the up and up.”

Jason Mandell, spokesperson for CCSA: “We are still dealing with in some cases myths that are very much outdated or maybe were never true, and so it continues to be an issue. If a small number of schools have an issue, all charters tend to be grouped together in how they are reported on in the media. Something happens at one charter school and that charter school speaks for all charters in some cases. With district schools, people don’t necessarily group them all together in that way.”

Accusation: An early draft of what became the Great Public Schools Now plan to fund successful school models aimed to enroll half of all LA Unified students in charter schools, something critics said would threaten the solvency of the district. The plan, which originated with the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, has since changed to include other school models beyond charters, but the draft plan has led to the accusation that billionaires are out to bankrupt the district. 

Elliot: “I would say to keep in mind that plan came from one person, and that was Broad. You should not condemn a big, successful charter community because what one philanthropist published as his plan. That was him, that wasn’t me and that wasn’t my colleagues. I mean, let’s keep perspective here. Anybody can say what they want to say, but it is called the ‘Broad Plan,’ it is not called ‘the plan of all the charter leaders in Los Angeles.’ I think people need to keep that in perspective. It was not wise. It was a bad choice. It hurt us terribly.”

Young: “In the 1990s, when the Annenberg Foundation gave LAUSD half a billion dollars and the local business and civic community matched that donation two-to-one, no one was screaming, ‘Don’t let the billionaires take over our schools.’ The fact is that in order to have strong schools in Los Angeles, we need everyone involved, from small business owners to big business owners. From nonprofit leaders to churches and synagogues. All of the population of LA needs to be putting its whole strength into the schools. I’m just grateful that our business community is willing to continue to invest in public schools.”

Accusation: The early draft of the Great Public Schools Now plan had critics saying it — and charter growth in general — would threaten the financial solvency of the district. This has led to accusations that charters fight any attempt to limit or control their growth. 

Elliot: “I think it’s a tough situation for them and I get it, I understand if I was in their seat and I thought that the charter movement was going to become so huge, huge, huge that it was going to suck more seats until we are extinguished and the whole city will be charter, that’s the fear. I don’t think the whole city should be charter. I think we are just spending all this energy fighting with one another.”

Young: “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to limit the growth of any charter schools or any high-quality schools. As long as we have schools that are not successful for our kids, we need more schools, charter schools or specialized schools of one sort or another. We need more schools that do the job. And I think the financial situation of the district actually has almost nothing to do with the charter schools, and that is easily documented. And because of that, it’s an excuse and instead of focusing on fixing their financial challenges, they say oh, don’t have more charter schools.”

Accusation: The LA teachers union, UTLA, often uses the term “unregulated” when talking about charters and says there needs to be more oversight of charters because they are unregulated compared to district schools. 

Elliot: “I I think when people say charters are unregulated it means they are doing whatever they want with complete freedom and flexibility with no rules applying, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Charters come up for renewal every five years, and if there is any group of schools that feels they are being watched and are accountable it is charter schools. And not just because they come up for renewal every five years, but because we have an authorizer that keeps a close eye on us. They come in and do oversight visits every year. They continually ask for our financials and are watching everything and going over it with a fine-tooth comb much more so than what happens in the district.”

Young: “Bureaucracies oversee things in the way that they know how. And the charter school law is really all about holding schools accountable for student outcomes and for fiscal stability. And the only way that the school district knows how to hold anybody accountable is how many mountains of paper they have turned in.”

De Jesus: “I think one of the big myths out there about charters is that they are unregulated, which is simply not true. We have an annual oversight visit for every single school, whether the school is high performing or not. And we also have to go before the board every five years to see if we deserve another shot. And when do regular public schools have to go through that kind of scrutiny? Hardly ever.”

Accusation: Some charters, especially in the startup phase, lack the facilities of a traditional school and hold classes in churches and other non-traditional settings. This has led to the accusation that some charters deprive students of a well-rounded school experience by lacking athletic fields, auditoriums and other traditional amenities. 

Elliot: “I have really evolved on this over the years. I always used to say that it doesn’t matter where you teach, you could be in a little red schoolhouse in the middle of a field and you can have great results, and I believe that to be true. However, I do believe that children deserve fields and they deserve a gymnasium. They deserve to have a performance area and a multipurpose room, especially because that’s what the other children at traditional schools get.”

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