Things weren't looking good for WISH Charter Schools' supporters, who filled the front rows at L.A. Unified's school board meeting Tuesday night in hopes of winning approval to open a new charter high school.
The district's charter division didn't support WISH's bid for a five-year charter. "You don't have the votes," board member Mónica García — a charter proponent — mouthed to WISH supporters from the board dais. But other board members also sounded uneasy about rejecting the application outright.
So García cut a deal, right there in front of the board room. As board members debated, García huddled with WISH's executive director and a California Charter Schools Association staffer.
Then she returned to the dais to offer a compromise: overrule the recommendation of L.A. Unified staff and approve WISH's charter bid for three years, not five.
By a 4-2 vote, the board agreed. WISH supporters, clad in red T-shirts, erupted in cheers.
Tuesday night's scene encapsulates so much about a fast-evolving relationship between the L.A. Unified staff, which reviews the quality of bids to open new charter schools; the district's school board, which has the final say; and a charter school sector with its sights set on a massive expansion.
L.A. Unified's Charter Schools Division, which submits its recommendations to the board, has been less supportive of applications to open new charter schools in the last year, according to a KPCC review of school board records going back to August 2013. The district office has recommended denial for as many applications to open new charter schools in the last two months as they have in the last two years.
School board members have also been more skeptical of new applicants. In the 2013-14 school year, LAUSD's board approved 85 percent of bids to open new charter schools. Even after approving WISH's charter, the board has approved just 53 percent of new charter applications this school year.
It can be difficult to draw conclusions from these figures alone, said Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
While L.A. Unified's rejecting more charter applications, Richmond pointed out the district's approval rate is still in line with California's overall approval rate (authorizers approved around 49 percent of new charter applications in 2014-15) and well above the national average (36 percent).
"Every charter school authorizer should be making decisions on the merits of each proposal in front of it, not based on some kind of national average or a quota," Richmond said. "So L.A.'s quite a bit above the national average, but it may be because they're getting better proposals."
In recent months, though, district staff and board members have been increasingly out-of-sync. Since August 2013, district staff has reviewed 49 bids for new charter schools, and the school board's only overruled their recommendation five times — but four of those reversals have occurred since last November alone.
Charter school leaders have recently voiced concerns that something other than the merits of a prospective charter operator's application is driving the district's denial recommendations. They believe the district is rejecting bids to open new charters out of fear that a push to double the number of charter seats in L.A. could harm the district's bottom line.
"We are certainly seeing a new environment and a new outlook from the LAUSD board of education and the district," said Sarah Angel, the managing regional director for the California Charter Schools Association. (She's the CCSA staffer who huddled with García and WISH's leaders at Tuesday night's meeting to help hammer out a compromise.)
But while L.A. Unified leaders are denying applications for new charters at a higher rate this year, renewals for existing charter schools are a different story. This year, the district's Charter School Division has supported 41 of 42 bids to renew or revise a school's charter. The board ultimately voted to support all 42 applications.
To Angel, that number speaks to a mismatch between the district's recent skeptical reviews of new charter applications.
She argued the process for renewing a charter is "even more intense" than the process of applying to open a school, since schools have to contend with actual data on their enrollment, academic performance, finances and operations. How then, Angel asked, can the district reject more new applications than renewal petitions?
But Richmond disputed that analysis.
"If a district is doing a good job on approval decisions in the first place — only approving good proposals and denying weak proposals — then they're going to have good charter schools, and most of them will be renewed," said Richmond. "To see a disparity, that's not surprising at all."
At Tuesday's meeting, L.A. Unified's Charter School Division chief José Cole-Gutiérrez said the district had fundamental questions about WISH's operations, saying the operator — which currently runs charter elementary and a middle schools — has had troubles meeting enrollment goals and maintaining strong finances.
But WISH executive director Shawna Draxler disputed Cole-Gutiérrez's characterization, saying the district's policies caused problems with the school's enrollment on paper. She also questioned why L.A. Unified staff would not allow it to count a pending $575,000 state and federal grant toward their budget numbers.
School board members had to mediate the dispute during the meeting. Many said they were encouraged by public testimony from students and parents who supported WISH's model of including students of all ability levels — including some with moderate or severe disabilities — in every classroom.
But board member Ref Rodriguez struggled to reconcile his admiration for the school with concerns about the school's finances — and the fact that L.A. Unified would not necessarily have the last word. The Los Angeles County Office of Education can also approve charter schools in the city. Since August 2013, three charters that LAUSD has rejected have applied to the county, according to the state's charter schools association. One of those has opened.
"It weighs on me that this school may not be able to get approved at this district, but it might get approved at the county," Rodriguez said.
"I am not a proponent of that," he went on, "because we have schools in our district that were denied here, got approved at the county, and they're in our backyard — and we have no oversight."
Rodriguez voted to approve García's compromise — a three-year charter for WISH.
But two board members said they worried the board is becoming too willing to reverse in two hours what professionals at the district can sometimes spend weeks deliberating. Board member Steve Schmerelson voted against it, apologizing to Cole-Gutiérrez and the district's charter office.
"You are being treated as if you are fools, buffoons, and didn't know what you're talking about," Schmerelson said.