Superintendent Michelle King, Mayor Eric Garcetti and other elected officials and dignitaries paid visits to several Los Angeles Unified School District campuses on Tuesday to welcome back the roughly 514,000 students who returned to classes.
That district projection pegs L.A. Unified's student enrollment roughly 13,000 students smaller than it was last year, continuing a decade-long decline.
In part to reverse that trend, King has said she intends to expand access to L.A. Unified's half-dozen "school choice" programs, which allow parents to send their kids somewhere other than their default, neighborhood school.
These choice options — from magnet programs and language immersion schools to transfers and open-enrollments — have been popular for years. In 2013-14, more than 135,000 students exercised school choice; that's roughly one out of every four students in the L.A. Unified that year.
But since then, enrollment's still declined by an estimated 42,000 students.
In an interview with KPCC on Monday, King said parents in some of the vast district's neighborhoods still have trouble accessing choice programs. While she did not offer many details of her solution on school choice, her answers in the interview reveal her conception of the problem.
"All choices aren’t everywhere," King said. "What I learned in having the opportunity to talk to families from across this district, is families want certain things in their area where they can have direct access."
King mentioned the popular dual language programs. She says not every language is available in neighborhoods accessible to everyone.
In a similar way, she noted a student who open-enrolled in an arts-focused elementary school might not be able to matriculate to an arts-focused middle school — simply because there isn't one nearby.
"Even though we have a lot of choice, it wasn’t a pipeline, we couldn’t move from elementary to middle to high and to be able to maintain that theme or area of interest," King said.
Many of the details of King’s plan to expand choice may be included in the strategic plan her staff has said is due out early this fall.
When asked for details about what that choice plan might look like, L.A. School Board president Steve Zimmer said a lot of the work to create instructional pathways that carry students through consistent choice options from kindergarten through high school will happen at the grassroots level.
"We don’t have the grand marquee, shout-it-from-the-mountaintop [plan], but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” said Zimmer, "and it actually doesn’t mean that it’s not happening in a much smarter way.”
This call for more choice within the district comes as the list of public school options outside of L.A. Unified gets longer, too.
The district projects enrollment in independent charter schools will grow again this year, to 113,000 students. Some — including leaders of the district's teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles — see charter schools’ gains as the districts’ losses.
For her part, King has tried to de-escalate some of the tensions between the two camps, convening a summit of charter and district educators in July, and even reaffirming that charter school students are LAUSD students. (They are, but every student who enrolls in an independent charter school also represents a hit to the L.A. Unified budget.)
But in her interview with KPCC, King also noted there is a "tipping point" where aggressive expansion of choice programs can carve up L.A.'s student population into too many schools that won't be large enough to provide "rich opportunities for kids." Since enrollment equals funding, small schools mean small budgets.
"I played nice [with charters], as you call it," King said, "because I do support strongly that all students are L.A. Unified students. And I want the best education for all students.
"But," she added, "I do think we have to work together and make sure that happens and it can’t by be just opening up more and more and more any type of school, cutting up and slicing up the pie in smaller and smaller pieces because I feel unfortunately that would [have] an adverse impact on our kids."
In an emailed statement, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said Michelle King's comments are evocative of the education landscape in Detroit.
"Charter schools opened in unregulated fashion," he wrote, "the [traditional Detroit public school] system was carved up and sent over a fiscal cliff. Now, there are more choices in Detroit – but no good choices."
California Charter Schools Association spokesperson Jason Mandell framed King's comments differently.
"King seems intent on expanding and improving public school choices and making it easier for families to explore those choices," Mandell wrote in an email. "As long as she remains focused on these goals and includes charter schools in her vision, she’ll be helping families who just want to be able to choose the best possible learning environment for their children.
"King has the opportunity to redefine what is possible at L.A. Unified," Mandell added, "if she can manage to steer clear of Caputo-Pearl's endless and political war on charter schools.”
Supt. Michelle King's interview with KPCC
Below is the portion of KPCC education reporter Kyle Stokes's interview with King in which the superintendent discussed her views on school choice. The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
KPCC: There’s already a lot of school choice in L.A. There were 8,000 new magnet seats that came online, for example. But district projections still show a drop in enrollment, a slide by around 13,000 kids this year. What’s the missing link here? Why is it that we’re already expanding choice, already a lot of choice options, and yet enrollment is continuing to decline?
Supt. Michelle King: I think you know you have to look at where the choices are across the district. As you know we’re a large district. All choices aren’t everywhere. What I learned in having the opportunity to talk to families from across this district is families want certain things in their area where they can have direct access.
For example, we learned that our youngest kids, our families wanted to see our preschoolers and early ed kids have an opportunity to start language earlier, to be able to start dual opportunities earlier for some of our kids … we had a number of dual language programs and foreign language immersion, but the types of languages were … in pockets.
What I see happening is we have to make sure that the choices that we have are distributed so that parents in the various communities have access to them readily. We really are looking at serving— talking to families to see what they want to have located in their own community.
And then I’m a big proponent of the instructional pipeline. Even though we have a lot of choice, it wasn’t a pipeline: you couldn’t move from elementary to middle to high and to be able to maintain that theme or area of interest. We’ve really tried to work hard to ensure that we make those connections, fill those gaps so that parents have that opportunity as well.
That coupled with trying to bring online the unified enrollment— which is another piece that I think that, you know, it’s been complicated for parents to figure out what [school choices] they’re applying for when, the deadlines are very different depending on their programs of interest. So we’re working hard to bring that all into one space for parents — one-stop-shopping — and we can have all options available. That’s another way I’m looking at trying to curb some of the decline in enrollment.
KPCC: When I asked about [unified enrollment] last spring, it sounded like this was a priority but there was no deadline, no timeline on this yet. When can we expect a timeline on the unified enrollment system?
Supt. King: They’re piloting what we call a soft roll-out, but we’re looking really at the next school year to bring something fully online — the 2017-18 school year.
KPCC: Also on this line of choice: you’ve been a big proponent in playing nice with charters; ‘we all need to learn from each other.’ And that idea is nice until charter schools start eroding your enrollment, until they start cutting into your market share of students. Are you okay with charter schools doing that?
Supt. King: I feel there kind of comes a tipping point. You know, we have a finite number of students in a given area. And you could only slice up the pie so many ways. That’s just the bottom line.
You get to a point, I call, of diminishing returns, because what I have learned, in looking at schools and in terms of being able to offer a rigorous college prep program: you have to have a decent number enrolled to really to be able to offer the courses to give students that enriched experiences.
I think together with the charters, we have to take a look at what’s happening there, because what will end up occurring I believe is that we won’t be able to have rich opportunities for kids period because all of the schools will be too small to offer that type of educational experience.
So I "played nice," as you call it, because I do support strongly that all students are L.A. Unified students, and I want the best education for all students. But I do think we have to work together and maybe ensuring that happens, and it can’t by be just opening up more and more and more any type of school, cutting up and slicing up the pie in smaller and smaller pieces because I feel unfortunately that would be an adverse impact on our kids.
KPCC: So if the aim is to sort of play the game of choice, and try to win families into L.A. Unified to build the critical mass around these programs, doesn’t that imply that we need way more school choice seats, seats in choice-type programs; pathways, as you call them? Doesn’t that imply we need a lot more of those, and a significant number more than we’re creating? And already, there’s 4,500 new magnet seats coming online for '17-18; 8,000 magnet seats for '16-17. Don’t we need a lot more than that if we can build that critical mass around the programs? And how much are we talking about in your estimation?
Supt. King: Choice is a lot more than magnets. Magnets is one of our premier choice opportunities. It’s not the only opportunity. I’m opening up an all-girls school this fall, opening up an all-boys school next fall, and looking at other types of programs that may or may not be a magnet.
We have academies that we’re looking at in the south, where [Local District] Superintendent [Christopher] Downey is opening up academy-type structures. He has been really able to link what we call an instructional complexes, his schools to have STEAM academies and to have dual language academies, not magnets.
I say that to say you don’t have to necessarily have that formalized structure that we’ve come to understand through magnets to be able to offer families choices. I think we can do that to some degree, within the structures that currently exist in our district.
KPCC: My question is not necessarily of type— I brought up magnets as an example —but not so much of type, but of “how much?” So, how much? How many new seats do we need? How much of LA Unified do you want enrolled in a school of choice within the next year or two? Do we want half of L.A. Unified enrolled in a school of choice?
Supt. King: Choice to me means the preference for a parent. It means options for a parent. It’s not necessarily a program. I don’t see choice as a “program" even though that’s how it’s often described…
Many of our schools don’t have these quote-unquote labels that we put on them, like that we've talked about this afternoon. But [kids might attend] because of the climate that’s on a campus, or it might be the leadership that’s not he campus or it could be the gardening program that they have on the campus. It might be a number of things.
It’s the place that I want a family is interest in sending their child. To me, that’s the definition of school choice.