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LAUSD charter school growth faster pace than in state, nation

Vanessa Romo | July 28, 2014

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At the start of the new school year in two weeks, LA Unified will have almost 200 more charter schools than it did a decade ago. 

The growth reflects a more swift expansion than national and statewide trends in school choice options. 

Since 2004, charter schools in LA Unified have increased nearly four times, to 265 from 68, while the number of charter schools in California has risen by half, and across the country the number has doubled, to 6,000 from 3,000.  

“When you look at the numbers you can clearly see that LAUSD is extremely hospitable to charter school operators,” board member Steve Zimmer told LA School Report. “This is not a district that makes it hard for parents to find an alternative to their local public schools.”

The latest numbers, provided by the district’s Charter School Division, show that the overwhelming majority of charter schools that will operate this year — 212 — are “independent,” which means they are run by an entity separate and independent of LAUSD in almost all respects, including finances. Such schools are not covered by the district’s labor contracts. 

“Affiliated” schools, of which there will be 53 throughout the district, function under the auspices of the LAUSD Board of Education and are usually public school conversions. The district typically administers all funding programs for for these schools and employees are covered by union contracts. 

Both types of charters possess the autonomy to create their own curriculum, develop their own programs and set the their own instructional schedules, which is what parents cite as the primary reason for choosing these over traditional public schools.

A few other highlights from the chart above:

  • District 2, represented by board member Monica Garcia, has the highest number of charter schools in the district — 52. All are independent charters
  • District 3, represented by board member Tamar Galatzan, has had the highest growth of charters in the last five years. It also has the highest number of affiliated charter schools in the entire district, 32
  • District 6, represented by board member Monica Ratliff, has the fewest number of charter schools with 26.
  • District 7, represented by board President Richard Vladovic, has had the slowest growth over the last five year adding only two new charters for a total of 29.

Galatzan explains that the explosion of affiliated charter schools in the north San Fernando Valley is due to the district’s changes in how it disburses federal funds for low-income students, called Title 1 funding. 

After federal dollars were reduced by 9 percent in 2011, the district raised the threshold for eligibility for Title 1 funds to schools where 50 percent of students were from low-income families. Schools with 65 to 100 percent low income students get even more money.

“A lot of the non-Title 1 schools in my district ended up with basically no discretionary money whatsoever and were looking around for someway to survive,” Galatzan said.  “For many, especially the elementary schools, becoming affiliated charters gave them access to state charter school block grant money, which would allow them to bring some different programming to the school.”

As a result, she says, most non-Title 1 elementary schools in her district have become affiliated charters, with the exception of Balboa Gifted High Ability Magnet, which became a pilot school.  

Education experts generally agree that independent charters locate where there are higher percentages of low income families. In so doing, there is more Title 1 money for them to access. Conversely affiliated charters tend to operate in districts where families are more economically comfortable but still offer academic pursuits that are not available in traditional public schools.

Zimmer, whose district has experienced a rapid growth of affiliated and independent charter schools in the last five years, is empathetic with frustrated parents who are choosing charters over neighborhood schools. But, he says, the saturation of charter schools in LAUSD has more to do with money and anti-union sentiments than with a fight for equal access to a good education.

“How is that you can concentrate so many charter schools in one district while still allowing for a virtual desert in other areas with comparable or even more troubling data than LAUSD?” he asked.

“From the 40,000 foot level, the only conclusion that someone can reach is that operators and entrepreneurs follow the money, and the money in the investment is in LAUSD. Whether you’re talking about the Walton Foundation or others, they’re not only interested in the schools because of the liberation of youth living in poverty, they’re in interested in the model because the model is an anti-labor model.”

Over the last ten years only 61 charter schools approved by the district have closed down. The Charter Schools Division reports 19 have closed due to a lapse of the charter, 22 schools self-closed, a process instigated as a result of district oversight, 15 charters were not renewed, and only five charters have been revoked.

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