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‘Difficult conversation’ on charters finally comes to LAUSD board

Mike Szymanski | January 8, 2016

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After three revisions, a resolution aimed at curtailing future charter school expansion in LA Unified is finally coming before the school board for a vote on Tuesday.

While the measure is largely symbolic in that it cannot change policy regarding charter growth — that is a state matter — it’s a way to open a “difficult conversation that is long overdue,” said its only sponsor, Scott Schmerelson.

General in scope, the resolution is an obvious response to the Broad Foundation-inspired plan, Great Public Schools Now, that is proposing a dramatic increase in the number of LA Unified charters over the next eight years. Schmerelson and other board members have characterized the plan as dangerous to the district’s traditional schools.

“As a retired, life-long LAUSD educator, I believe that I have a moral obligation to raise awareness and understanding of externally driven strategies that support the uncontrolled proliferation of charter schools at the expense of the District’s ability to adequately provide for the needs of all students, especially the most disadvantaged students who rely on public education,” Schmerelson told LA School Report.

As impassioned as the resolution may be, it’s effectively toothless in terms of changing how the district deals with charter applications and renewal requests that come before the board. State law creates the rules for charters, and it only provides for denials in the cases of questionable finances or managerial weakness.

In his review of the resolution, LA Unified’s chief legal counsel, David Holmquist, said as much: “It should be noted that any analysis done by the district on any charter school proposal needs to be in accordance with the provisions of the Education Code.” He added, “The Board should be cautioned against using any fiscal impact to the district and potential decrease in revenues as bases for denying a charter.”

That’s part of the problem, Schmerelson said, pointing to state regulations that restrict how the school board monitors, controls and approves charter schools. “We need to change state law and clarify ambiguous state and district guidelines that hamper our ability to act as responsible charter authorizers and exercise diligent oversight of existing charter schools,” he said.

Anita Landecker, interim executive director of Great Public Schools Now, said the resolution won’t impact the organization’s plan to press ahead.

“We remain focused on our goal of ensuring high quality educational options for children in underserved neighborhoods,” she said in an email to LA School Report. “Our plan will simply provide a roadmap for doing that. Our effort will not be materially impacted by motions like this, as the true work will be done by hard working educators who are simply trying to grow and expand their high quality schools.”

She added, “We look forward to working collaboratively with LAUSD, including the new superintendent, to achieve that goal.”

Schmerelson first introduced his “Excellent Public Education for Every Student” measure in November, and it was rewritten three times. Ultimately, he removed language that specifically asked the board to “oppose” the Broad plan, changing it to say the board “stands opposed to external initiatives that seek to reduce public education in Los Angeles to an educational marketplace and our children to market shares.”

He also re-inserted a request that the superintendent “analyze external proposals targeting LAUSD for their impact in terms of enrollment, fiscal viability and LAUSD’s ability to provide an outstanding public education” — a heady challenge to a new superintendent who could be named as early as next week.

Schmerelson also criticized the district for ignoring the issues posed by the Great Public Schools Now initiative.

“For too long,” he said, “the leadership of LAUSD has failed to acknowledge the collateral damage to the majority of our students when systematic, external agendas are being developed and well financed to weaken, and eventually destroy, LAUSD’s ability to provide a quality education for students who rely on our neighborhood schools and a wide range of district innovative programs and critical services.”

The resolution is up for a vote now after Schmerelson agreed to delay it at the request of board President Steve Zimmer, who has been pressing the board to concentrate on picking a new superintendent. In the meantime, charter advocacy groups declared the Schmerelson resolution unlawful and requested changes resulting in minor rewording such as “unregulated” charter schools to “under-regulated.”

The resolution, as now written, outlines nine points for the district with the goal to improve public education and to keep students in traditional schools. Those points include ensuring equitably-funded arts and music education, helping young students who “endure the disadvantages of poverty” and encouraging parent involvement in student achievement.

The only potential budget impact, according to LAUSD staff, could be the cost of the extra analysis that this resolution will lay on the new superintendent. Also, the budget could be impacted by “any litigation resulting from denying a petition on a basis that is not clearly based in law.”

Schmerelson said the conversation is something he wanted to have with fellow board members since he was elected last year.

“The purpose of my resolution is to begin to address the threat to the district’s ability to effectively serve all students in LAUSD,” he said. “I see my resolution as the beginning of a difficult conversation, that is long overdue, about the future viability of our mission and commitment to all students.”

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