Education

Can LA Unified fairly oversee the charter schools it competes against?

Los Angeles Unified School Board members hear public comment during a recent meeting.
Los Angeles Unified School Board members hear public comment during a recent meeting.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

Is the Los Angeles Unified School District able to give a fair shake to the charter schools it authorizes and oversees even though the district loses money every time a student leaves to attend a charter?

The district's school board wrestled with that question in a public soul-searching on Tuesday, one week after denying normally-routine requests from five charter schools, putting those schools' futures in doubt and prompting sharp backlash from charter supporters.

Some board members have defended their votes to deny those five charter schools' requests to remain open for another five years as tough but necessary steps rooted in concerns about the finances and governance of their respective operators: the Magnolia Education Research Foundation and the Celerity Educational Group.

On Tuesday, board members addressed the underlying concern the California Charter Schools Association and others have raised in the wake of their vote: that letting L.A. Unified review such requests from charter schools — especially in an environment where the district and charters compete for funding — is letting the fox guard the henhouse.

It's an overblown accusation, board president Steve Zimmer said: “There is always going to be criticism, and I think we have to welcome that criticism.”

But undergirding Tuesday’s conversation was an uneasiness with California's regulatory process, which gives local school boards the first word on charter school applications — but not always the the final say.

In California, those seeking to open a new charter school must ask their local school district for permission. If the district's board approves the application, the district becomes the charter’s “authorizer,” responsible for monitoring the school’s academic performance and governance practices.

The principle is that L.A. Unified’s elected board ought to be the stewards of all education funding sent to schools within the district’s boundaries — not just in the district-operated schools. (Charter schools have their own appointed governing boards and are operated by non-profits, not the district.)

But if the district’s board turns down a charter petition, the charter school can appeal the decision to the county board of education. If county board members give their blessing, the charter school can open — with the county as the new charter authorizer.

For instance, in 2014, L.A. Unified turned down requests to allow two Aspire charter schools to remain open. Those schools appealed to the L.A. County Board of Education, won their renewals and are still open today.

“I’m looking for consistency,” said board member Richard Vladovic, echoing a point others on the panel have made in the past — consistency both in the process L.A. Unified’s Charter Schools Division uses to weigh charter applications, and consistency in charter decisions across L.A. County and the state.

“We’d save a heckuva lot of money,” Vladovic said, “if the state just authorized them all and then supervised them all.”

“It seems to me sometimes,” board member Mónica Ratliff added, “like the [district’s] charter division does an extremely thorough job of making sure there will be a sound instructional program.

"But in the end,” Ratliff added, “even if we listen to [the division] and it still gets approved somewhere else … I see Dr. Vladovic’s point, what is the point of all that?”

Board member George McKenna balked at that notion. But he also noted the primary criteria the district’s Charter Schools Division uses to judge charter applications — whether it has a “sound educational plan” — is inherently subjective.

"Is it in our best interest to be more specific about what a ‘sound educational plan’ would mean?” he said, adding, “I’m concerned about the subjectivity, the lack of specificity of ‘soundness of an educational plan.’

Charter school petitioners “who are turned down will always have a complaint,” said school board vice president George McKenna. “Their opinion will always be that they were wronged, that we weren’t fair, that the burden is on [L.A. Unified] to prove their guilt, not on them to prove their innocence.”

"I’m trying to be helpful here but also knowledgable and inquisitive,” McKenna said, “about how we can be more predictable and transparent at the same time in what we’re doing.”

Charter school advocates have said the district’s decisions recently have been anything but predictable. Charter Schools Division staff have recommended more denials in recent years, according to a KPCC analysis — though the board hasn't always followed through on the staff's recommendations.

“For a long time, charter schools were evaluated mostly on the degree to which they were helping students learn. Those days are over,” read a blistering statement from the California Charter Schools Association issued after L.A. Unified’s denials last week.

“[Charters] are judged on whether they’ve done anything to offend the peculiar and often petty tastes of the politicians who get to decide which schools live or die,” the statement continued. “And at LAUSD, they are judged in never-ending witch hunts by an opaque third party, the Office of the Inspector General, that has no obligation to publicly share its findings or allow schools to address or refute them.”

Zimmer rejected the criticism on Tuesday during his questioning of the Charter Schools Division administrative coordinator Robert Perry.

“There is a oft-stated concern that the division is solely responding to the board,” Zimmer told Perry. "I did not hear in your processes, I did not get a suggestion that somehow this is subject to the subject to the influence of the board.”

“This is my fifth year in the division,” Perry responded. “I’ve never had a board member call me into his or her office and tell me how a recommendation should go.”

During public comment on Tuesday, Gerry Jacoby, president and CEO of the Value Schools charter network — which has a renewal decision coming before the board soon — said she did feel her requests to the district get fair hearings.

But she doesn’t always know what to expect when disagreements arise between the applicant and L.A. Unified’s Charter Schools Division.

“Sometimes,” Jacoby said, “it feels like we go to the doctor for an infected hangnail and the remedy is amputation of the hand.”