Every few years, a charter school has to ask the school district overseeing it to renew its operating authority — like a renter asking to renew his lease on an apartment or a car.
The Los Angeles Unified School Board has routinely approved these charter renewals. They’ve also regularly green-lighted “material revisions” to charters, allowing schools to add grade levels, alter enrollment targets or change their operational structures. Out of 202 such requests to L.A. Unified since 2011, the board has rejected only five.
Tuesday night was different.
L.A. Unified board members voted down renewal petitions for five charters in one evening — three schools operated by Magnolia Public Schools and two others operated by the Celerity Educational Group — during a meeting that was as fraught, divided and emotionally-charged as the district’s broader relationship with the charter schools it oversees.
With both Celerity and Magnolia, L.A. Unified officials raised questions about governance and oversight — but not their academic performance, which prompted charges from charter school supporters that the district was not judging the requests impartially.
“Up until this board report, I had confidence that LAUSD was treating charter schools fairly,” said Magnolia CEO Caprice Young. “They are specifically targeting some of the highest-performing charter schools … and I believe it’s just because they don’t want charter schools to continue to exist.” (Young made those comments in an interview on Monday, and renewed those objections after Tuesday night’s meeting.)
District officials said their questions about management practices at both Celerity and Magnolia are substantial. At Celerity, they question whether the schools are able to operate independently of Celerity Global Development, an umbrella non-profit that provides services to the school but that has not fulfilled the district’s requests for documents or information.
At Magnolia, they said school officials have not responded to reasonable inquiries from the district’s Office of the Inspector General or from the state’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team. (Young disputes this, saying she’s produced thousands of pages-worth of documents for district officials.)
L.A. Unified’s Charter Schools Division, the office charged with overseeing all of the charter schools the district authorizes, has been increasingly skeptical of petitions to open new charter schools, a KPCC analysis has shown.
But board members haven’t always followed staff recommendations. Data from the California Charter Schools Association also showed that, before Tuesday, L.A. Unified’s board had approved 155 out of 159 renewal petitions and 42 out of 43 material revision requests since 2011.
Still, Tuesday night’s events eschewed easy analysis. L.A. Unified’s board also approved — against the recommendation of district staff — a material revision for Citizens of the World, allowing the charter school operator to add seventh and eighth grade classes to its Mar Vista campus.
Additionally, L.A. Unified’s board held off on revoking the charter of the embattled El Camino Real High School after leaders of the Woodland Hills school agreed to part ways with their principal and several members of their governing board.
Further complicating the evening’s events: neither Mónica García nor Ref Rodriguez — the two L.A. Unified board members often identified as the biggest allies of the charter school sector — supported Celerity or Magnolia’s renewal petitions.
Rodriguez, who abstained from the Magnolia vote, expressed frustration with both the petitioners and district staff making the recommendations.
“I want to tell our charter partners out there that you’ve got to be good partners,” said Rodriguez, who himself is a co-founder of a charter network. “You’ve got to look in the mirror and say, ‘Are we being good?’”
"But I also want the [L.A. Unified’s] Charter Schools Division to ask themselves that same question,” Rodriguez added, “because it takes two to tango. We need to be in a situation where we can get through some of these things because I don’t want to see these schools in our backyard get authorized by someone else.”
(Charter schools L.A. Unified declines to authorize or renew can appeal to the Los Angeles County Office of Education or State Board of Education. Many schools that have taken that step have opened in L.A. anyway.)
García voted to deny both renewal petitions, but said she was concerned L.A. Unified officials weren’t able to work past their questions about Celerity’s and Magnolia’s operations to see their academic successes.
“Today, the solution seems like all we can do is say ‘no,’ because we cannot find the relationship or the politics or the apparatus,” she said, “to get us to the bridge of [renewing the school].”
UCLA education professor John Rogers said Tuesday night shows how California’s charter school sector has outgrown the regulatory structure outlined in the Charter School Act of 1992, which envisioned charter schools as proving grounds for new educational models that would benefit all schools.
“What has emerged in contrast to that,” Rogers said, “is a process of hyper competition in which the charter sector is seeking to gain control of more of the educational space the district is trying to hold on to its educational space and turf wars are playing out constantly.”
“The district is placed in an impossible position,” he added, “to some extent — as are the charters, I would argue — in that both are working in a system that’s focused on competition rather than focusing on providing high quality education for all students. What needs to happen is to move beyond this competition-based system to a collaborative system in which there are certain standards that all schools, charter or district, have to live up to.”
But some charter school backers frame the question differently. They wonder whether L.A. Unified’s board could fairly judge charter applications.
After all, students who leave L.A. Unified schools for a charter cost the district funding.