Teachers union wants no part of charter-backed group's grant competition for LAUSD

Members of United Teachers Los Angeles — the union representing Los Angeles Unified School District teachers — hold a protest outside district headquarters on June 14, 2016.
Members of United Teachers Los Angeles — the union representing Los Angeles Unified School District teachers — hold a protest outside district headquarters on June 14, 2016.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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The union representing Los Angeles' public school teachers said Friday its members want no part of a grant competition for L.A. Unified School District campuses funded by some of the city's biggest supporters of charter schools.

The non-profit organization Great Public Schools Now — an organization backed by charter school megadonors like the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation — plans to offer up to $3.75 million to help L.A. Unified expand five promising schools in targeted neighborhoods.

But this week, United Teachers Los Angeles members at four district-run campuses in those neighborhoods voted to condemn those grants as token offerings to L.A. Unified schools who have already lost greater sums of money to competition with charter schools.

“It’s a public relations stunt,” said UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl, "that offers chump change to a couple of LAUSD efforts while they continue to put tens of millions of dollars into unregulated charter growth."

Great Public Schools Now executive director Myrna Castrejón said UTLA leaders were ginning up unnecessary conflict, saying L.A. Unified leaders have also called for expansions of the district's most successful programs to satisfy parent demand for more school options.

"When there are significant waiting lists both on magnets and in charter schools," Castrejón said in an interview, "the prime directive has to be, 'how do we get a better educational opportunity to kids who really need it?'

"In the end," she continued, "both the charter growth and the magnets' growth and the ability of the district to diversify its portfolio and increase the number of high-quality options is something that has to remain the north star."

Last year, a draft of the Broad Foundation's "Great Public Schools Now Plan" outlined an aggressive fundraising effort to double the number of students in charter schools in Los Angeles. L.A. Unified leaders saw a grave threat to their enrollment and finances in those expansion plans.

Great Public Schools Now — the non-profit organization — sprouted out of that initial plan, but with what its leaders insist is a significantly different mission. The L.A. Unified grant program was to be a "turning point," as Castrejón has said, underscoring Great Public Schools Now's new mission: to expand both high-quality charter and non-charter public schools in Los Angeles.

The competition would be open L.A. Unified schools located in Great Public Schools Now's 10 target neighborhoods — essentially South and East L.A. and the East San Fernando Valley — with high-needs student populations and strong test scores. Five winning schools would ultimately receive grants of up to $250,000 per year for three years. The competition's stated goal: "do more of what works."

(In addition, Great Public Schools Now is currently reviewing applications for $20,000 planning grants. It's not clear how many schools have applied.)

The grant criteria are intentionally narrow. A KPCC analysis found just 32 schools in the target neighborhoods that met the criteria.

The four schools where UTLA members voted to renounce Great Public Schools Now's grant program — Drew Middle School, Gompers Middle School, Pacoima Middle School and San Fernando High School — were not on the list of possible candidates KPCC identified.

Despite their stated goals, some L.A. Unified leaders remain skeptical of Great Public Schools Now's ultimate intentions.

"I'm concerned," L.A. Unified School Board president Steve Zimmer said last month, "that there's going to be a small investment in LAUSD and a large investment in charter expansion, and somehow the proponents of this are going to be able to say, 'We support all schools,' by identifying a small number of LAUSD schools they deem worthy of support."

UTLA's Caputo-Pearl was asked whether dismissing Great Public Schools Now's L.A. Unified grant as a publicity stunt wasted an opportunity to build goodwill with a more charter-friendly group.

"We are very open to olive branches," he replied. "We would actually be very encouraged if Eli Broad and [the Walton Family Foundation] came back with another offer and said, 'What we're going to do is give a substantial amount of money, millions of dollars, to the L.A. School Board … to spend in the way they see fit.'"

But Caputo-Pearl doubted charter megadonors like Broad would come through on such an offer.