Advocates voice 'grave concern' over LAUSD's review process for new charter schools

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Charter school leaders are rallying behind applicants who hope to open a new charter high school, intensifying their accusation that Los Angeles Unified School District officials are playing politics with charter applications.

Leaders of 30 L.A. charter networks have signed a letter questioning district staff's recommendation that school board members deny a petition from Westside Innovative School House, or "WISH," to open a high school in the Westchester neighborhood, according to a draft of the letter KPCC has obtained.

The letter's signatories hold up WISH — which already runs an elementary and middle school nearby — as a model charter operator, writing that the denial recommendation "reinforces our grave concern that the credibility of the district’s charter petition review process is being undermined."

L.A. Unified staff said their denial is justified, saying WISH's existing charters are losing money and that its middle school has failed to meet agreed-upon enrollment targets.

But to charter advocates, it's more evidence to support their claim that L.A. Unified — concerned that a massive push to double the number of students enrolled in Los Angeles charter schools could hurt the district's finances — is beginning to unfairly deny applications to open new charter schools.

"One of the main attacks by charter opponents is that charter schools don’t serve students with special needs and they don't serve students with moderate to severe needs," said the California Charter Schools Association's Sarah Angel. "And here we have WISH trying to open a high school to serve all students, including those with moderate to severe needs, and the district is trying to find every small reason to recommend denial them."

Tuesday's session of the L.A. Unified school board could end up looking a lot like last month's meeting, where charter advocates, staff and board members debated the fate of four charter petitions at length.

The board accepted staff's recommendation to approve a charter application for Arts in Action Community Middle School. But they went against the staff's recommendations to approve El Camino Real K-8, and to reject charter applications from Partnership to Uplift Communities (PUC).

WISH's application is up for a board vote on Tuesday. The operator's elementary and middle schools are built around "full inclusion," which means all kids of all abilities — including students with moderate and severe disabilities — are taught in the same classroom at the same time.

At WISH's elementary campus, 13 percent of students have special needs; at their middle school, nearly one-quarter of students at their middle school have special needs, according to Angel.

But to the district's reviewers, a unique educational offering wasn't enough to override concerns with WISH's fiscal and operational health.

In their denial recommendation, administrators in L.A. Unified's Charter Schools Division noted that the district "acknowledges and appreciates the unique and widely recognized school inclusion model program." But they said WISH's net assets are declining and that the operator's expenses have outpaced its income in three of the last four school years.

(WISH's executive director, Shawna Draxton, disputed that claim. She says WISH will receive a state and federal startup grant for $575,000 if the board approves their high school's charter application, which would make the school's finances significantly healthier. But Draxton says they cannot count that grant in their startup budget they filed in their application with L.A. Unified.)

In addition, district staff pointed to "an increasing lack of capacity to prevent and systematically resolve operational difficulties" at WISH's existing schools. They say WISH's middle school has enrolled "slightly more than half of the 196 students that the school planned to serve."

"We encourage WISH to take more time and additional measures to fully address these concerns and we commend their hard work and unwavering dedication to their students and staff," a statement from L.A. Unified spokesperson Shannon Haber read.

In their letter, the charter leaders call these allegations of operational difficulties at WISH "unsubstantiated."

"We do not want the tens of thousands of families who choose and rely on our schools," the charter leaders wrote, "to believe that this is a political and biased process … we are united as we continue to call on the district to work with us to ensure clear, consistent, transparent reviews of charter school petitions."

The letter comes less than a week after L.A. Unified Superintendent Michelle King publicly expressed a desire to de-escalate the charter school debate. At a town hall meeting last Tuesday, King paired a familiar refrain — that "all of the students are L.A. Unified School District students — with a call for a "forum or event" between traditional, charter, pilot and magnet school administrators.

"I hoped us to get away from this us-them, and 'this one's better than that one,' and come together," King said. "We all want to get to what's best for kids."

This post has been updated.

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