In Partnership with 74

LAUSD board has mixed views on foundations’ charters expansion plan

Mike Szymanski | August 24, 2015

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 Some think it is a threat to the public education system. Some welcome it. Members of the LA Unified school board have reacted quite differently to the announcement that the Broad, Keck and Walton Family Foundations are planning to expand the number of charter schools in the district to serve well beyond the 101,000 students (nearly 16 percent) now enrolled in the district’s 211 charters.

The role of charters has been a long-running battle among board members, and now it’s sure to intensify with so many more in the planning stage. Issues involving charters, such as applications for new ones, renewals for existing ones and operational transparency, are part of almost every monthly board meeting, and even before the first meeting of the new year, opinions remain divided, based on interviews with LA School Report and other media outlets.

The foundations revealed their expansion plans several weeks ago but provided few details. One unnamed source told the LA Times that the goal was to enroll as many as half of LA Unified’s students in charter schools within eight years.

One of the two new members, Ref Rodriguez, a charter school founder, said, “I believe we need to offer every family a high quality option in public education, and that can be a LAUSD school or a charter school. I also believe that we need leaders in this district to advocate for transformation. I always welcome ideas around innovative and life changing approaches to creating quality and excellence in every single school across this district.”

Rodriguez added, “Is this plan a bold idea? Maybe. I don’t know the particulars.  But, I want to stay open to hearing about bold options and ideas to get to excellence in all of our schools. And, I want those bold ideas to come from the grassroots – communities, students, and parents.  I want to hear directly from our communities about what they need, what they want, and what they deserve.”

On the other hand, the other new board member, Scott Schmerelson, said, “I am opposed to any strategy that results in diluting and draining precious public school revenue or that does not fairly and equitably serve all students including English Learners, those with significant physical and mental health issues, homeless and foster youth, and those students and families for whom ‘choice’ is not an option.”

In that context, Schmerelson agreed with board president Steve Zimmer. In a recent interview with the Jewish Journal, Zimmer expressed his concern with the push by the big foundations.

“I believe in choice, but I am very, very wary. I am very cognizant of the damage that competition has done to our schools,” Zimmer told the Journal. “When a system becomes so obsessed with competition that they view children through their potential to score versus their overall humanity, the dehumanization of that public school system is not something that is attractive to parents, is not something that is warm and inviting. And our public schools, to my great regret, have become test score-obsessed. A lot of charter schools have, too.”

Zimmer added, “We have incredibly high levels of saturation. If choice is so important, the California Charter Schools Association agenda and the Walton Family Foundation and other foundations’ agendas to situate more and more charter schools within the LAUSD boundary is not about children. It’s not about choice. It’s not about innovation. It’s about a very different agenda of bringing down the school district, an agenda to dramatically change what is public education. It’s about altering the influence of public sector unions. I just happen to disagree with that agenda. But folks should be explicit about what their agenda is.”

Schmerelson added, “As a former teacher, counselor and principal, I believe that my most important responsibility as a newly elected school board member is to support all children by continuing to improve and strengthen our neighborhood schools. Our neighborhood public schools are mandated by law and tradition to maintaining the highest levels of professional staffing, transparent and inclusive decision-making, fiscal responsibility, and accountability to taxpayers.”

Mónica Ratliff, also a former teacher, has a large number of charters in her district. He expressed an open-mindedness about, so long as any expansion makes sense.

“When I first got into office, I did meet with some charter school operators to talk to them about this. And there were mixed feelings,” she said. “Some charter operators thought the more competition the better, and let it be free competition. Other charter school operators I think were sensitive to the fact that they have an established school now and to have other schools proliferate around them makes it more difficult for them as well. I think that this is something we should continue to dialogue about. It makes sense to have options for parents. But it also makes sense to make sure that schools are fiscally solvent as time goes on.”

Ratliff added, “I think that what we’re going to have to do as a district is figure out is how are we going to deal with the proliferation of charter schools because there’s no rhyme or reason in terms of locations … In the long run we should be working with our charter schools to try to figure out ways that would make sense for further development.”

Mónica García said she is open to any strategy that helps children graduate, and doesn’t see the proliferation of charter schools as the end of LAUSD.

We know there is no one strategy for everybody,” she said. “Charters have been an important partner for LA Unified. I’m open to any strategy that helps children and families.”

“They’re part of the reason why there’s space,” she added. “They’re part of the reason why we have teacher-led academies. Our pilot schools and other district reform models took what we learned from charters and we brought it inside the district. I see a stronger district in the future that is about all of these strategies coming together. We have had to close some charter schools, and I’ve opposed the closing of some charter schools.”

Further, she said, “We are all still learners as a system and urban America has to learn from LA Unified. I would go to any philanthropic arm and say please invest in our kids. We have many. many good strategies that need support.”

Zimmer, in his interview with the Jewish Journal, acknowledged the difference of opinion on the board, but said, “Right now, we share an understanding that the cost of cutthroat competition in the public education system is greater than the real gains for some children.”

LA School Report was unable to include the views of the two other board members, Richard Vladovic and George McKenna. Vladovic did not respond to messages left, seeking comment, and McKenna’s office said he declines to be interviewed.



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