LAUSD board endorses proposals to tighten charter school regulations

Charter school students and supporters from Options for Youth await a special board meeting on charter schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at LAUSD Headquarters.
Charter school students and supporters from Options for Youth await a special board meeting on charter schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at LAUSD Headquarters.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The Los Angeles Unified School Board narrowly voted Tuesday to endorse three state bills — supported by teachers unions — that would subject charter schools to stricter oversight and regulation.

Board members' 4-3 decision — again — put them in the middle of the political tug-of-war between teachers union leaders, who termed the bills' contents as "common sense;" and their rivals in the California Charter Schools Association, who said the proposals would impose "draconian" new rules and jeopardize efforts to open new charter schools.

It’s a familiar back-and-forth, and on Tuesday night, L.A. board member Mónica García sounded exhausted with it.

"We get dragged into this us-versus-them things," said García, who was one of three votes against the board's resolution. "That makes me uncomfortable."

"I'm just gonna say it: kids of color and kids of poverty have relied on this organization [L.A. Unified] for 160 years and we have yet to come through for them. We have made a lot of improvements … but we need to do more," García said, arguing some students need the option to attend a charter school while all public schools work to improve.

But board member George McKenna — who authored the measure in support of Assembly Bills 1360 and 1478 as well as Senate Bill 808 — said he felt the district needed more regulatory tools to curb charter schools' rapid growth.

McKenna said the spread in L.A. of charter schools — which are publicly-funded schools run by outside organizations — poses a risk to the district's enrollment, and therefore, its funding.

"Do not believe that the L.A. Unified School District would not be vulnerable to being economically insolvent," McKenna said, "if in fact we continue to allow and help others to come in."

Each of the bills L.A. Unified endorsed would, if not discourage charter schools from opening, at least add to their regulatory burden.

Assembly Bill 1478 would apply several open government and open records laws to the handful of charter schools not already following them, which is fine with the California Charter Schools Association.

But the bill also would subject charter schools to Government Code 1090, a state law that currently prevents officials in other government agencies from having a financial stake in any contracts or deals involving the government entity for which they work. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill last year over fears these provisions against  "self-dealing" would prevent seemingly innocent financial transactions as well. Charter association representatives say that provision is a deal-breaker.

School board members also voted to support Assembly Bill 1360, which seeks to crack down on charter school admissions practices critics call discriminatory, outlines a more rigorous process for suspending a charter school student and grants appeal rights to students expelled from a charter school.

"At the root of this is deregulation," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the teachers union United Teachers Los Angeles. "Do we want schools to be operated in a deregulated environment? Fundamental to deregulation is subverting democracy."

A third bill included in Tuesday night's resolution, Senate Bill 808, was the target of charter advocates' most vocal criticism; the California Charter Schools Association has dubbed it a "charter killer."

Current law allows petitioners who want to open a charter school but have been denied by their local school district to appeal to the county or state board of education. Senate Bill 808 would strip those appeal rights.

"The right to due process is part of our democracy no matter what we’re talking about, and so I think taking that away is highly problematic," said Cristina de Jesus, CEO of the Green Dot California network of charter schools, in an interview. "There's a need at times for there to be an unbiased entity that you're able to appeal to to ensure that the voices of parents and students in that community are heard."

In addition to limiting a charter's appeal rights, Senate Bill 808 would also give school boards new grounds to cite in its decision to deny a charter petition: that opening a charter would have adverse financial implications for the district.

Board member Mónica Ratliff proposed an amendment to the board's resolution that would've scrubbed out references to Senate Bill 808, but board members voted it down. She said school districts should have the option to consider whether the neighborhood is already saturated with alternatives to district schools, but felt Senate Bill 808's provisions gave school boards too much discretion.

"If it's gonna be about financial hardship, then right now, we can just start shutting them all, because it's already a financial hardship for the district," said Ratliff, who ultimately voted against McKenna's resolution.

Senate Bill 808's sponsor, Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, has recently announced he did not intend to bring this legislation to a vote this session. Teachers union officials Tuesday the bill will be considered on a two-year timetable and lawmakers will revisit it next year.

Board member Ref Rodriguez voted "no" on the resolution, in part, because Senate Bill 808 would be revisited — and perhaps even amended — next year.

"This could look very different by the time it gets in front of our legislators," Rodriguez said. "We’re making a statement today about something we don’t know about when it actually gets to a vote."

But board members Scott Schmerelson, Richard Vladovic and Steve Zimmer voted with McKenna favor of the resolution.

The makeup of that coalition also underscores the stakes of the board election next month. Zimmer, a teachers union favorite, faces a tough re-election matchup against a candidate that's been endorsed by the California Charter Schools Association.

"Today's vote," an association's statement released after the vote read, "demonstrates the importance of school board members who value all public schools in the community they represent."