An eleventh-hour deal that saved nearly a dozen charter schools from rejection by the Los Angeles Unified School Board on Tuesday is remarkable not only for the number of schools whose futures it preserved.
In fact, details released Tuesday outline a deal that could fundamentally alter how school district leaders regulate charter schools for years to come — no small matter, given that L.A. Unified oversees more charter schools than any other single school district in the U.S.
For starters, Tuesday's deal calls for the L.A. Unified School Board to vote every year on a specific list of district rules that charter schools will have to follow — and, by omission, won’t have to follow.
While this isn't necessarily an entirely new power for the board, it does mean elected school board members will now get the final say over mandates that, traditionally, unelected school district staff have handed down unilaterally.
Of course, the new arrangement supplants the will of unelected district officials with the will of elected school board members — and it probably didn't hurt that four of the seven current L.A. Unified board members were endorsed by charter school groups.
But top charter school representatives said they cheered the change not because of the school board's current politics, but because many charter leaders felt district officials would change the list of rules to which they were subject at whim. They felt the new arrangement would reduce confusion and increase transparency.
"Regardless of what the board composition is, that's how you can find clarity," said Emilio Pack, CEO of the STEM Prep network of charter schools. "We're gonna have a meeting and there's going to be discussion about what the policies are."
"Until a few weeks ago, the list of policies that the district believed applied to charters never existed," said school board member Nick Melvoin.
Charter school representatives also made concessions in the deal. The clearest: they dropped their challenges to the authority of the district's Office of Inspector General, which they have long argued is using its special legal powers to conduct oversight more appropriately handled by civilians in L.A. Unified's Charter Schools Division.
But in other ways, charter schools were able to win flexibility or clarity in district regulations that they'd been willing to jeopardize their charter school renewals in order to receive — and acting superintendent Vivian Ekchian said the district was able to compromise without "diminish[ing] requirements for charter schools authorized by L.A. Unified."
"We want to make sure that we are clear with expectations," said José Cole-Gutiérrez, the head of the district's Charter Schools Division. "I think we have been, but if schools feel they need more clarity, and if that's going to help students be safer and better-served, then we support that."
Cole-Gutiérrez's staff had initially recommended denying 14 charter schools who had applied for permission to open new charters or keep their existing schools open. Of those 14 schools, 13 had also initially refused to consent to certain rules and regulations spelled out in the "district-required language" L.A. Unified expects every charter to include in their founding documents; their "charters."
But with the deal in place amending the "district-required language," L.A. Unified officials reversed their denial recommendations for 11 of the 14 charter applications. The board voted to approve all 11 schools at their meeting on Tuesday. Board members denied the applications for the remaining three schools over concerns unrelated to the "district-required language."
Charter schools are publicly-funded schools run, for the most part, by non-profit organizations. Charters operate independently of the L.A. Unified School District, but need the permission of an authorizer — such as a school district — in order to open.
Both sides framed the deal as a sign of a more collaborative relationship between charter school leaders, L.A. Unified officials and the board. Said board member Nick Melvoin: "The conversations that were had by charter schools and the district over the last few weeks were productive — but, I think, just the beginning."
The deal was met by only meek objection from the board dais; board members George McKenna and Scott Schemerelson expressed concern that they had not been included in negotiations.
But outside the board chamber before Tuesday's meeting, the head of the labor union representing L.A. Unified teachers, Alex Caputo-Pearl, blasted a deal that he said would jeopardize charter oversight in the district.
"Over the last week, the California Charter Schools Association has been attempting to remove oversight from charter schools," said Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. "We do not need less oversight. We need more oversight and transparency."
Because the current deal amends the "district-required language," and the 11 charters renewed or approved today have agreed to this language, the deal is arguably already in place. But some of the particulars will still be sorted out in the coming weeks and months. The amended "district-required language" spells out some of the details:
- School board members will vote on the list of policies that will apply to its authorized charter schools. District staff are still compiling a list to submit for the board's approval, likely at a board meeting in April. Cole-Gutiérrez said these policies will apply to all charter schools that come before the board for approval or renewal from here on out. It's conceivable that the board could apply this policy list to all 228 charter schools the district oversees retroactively, but that will be up to the board to decide.
- L.A. Unified openly acknowledged that charter schools can shop around for special education services. Quick explanation: if a special education student enrolls in a charter school, the charter cannot legally turn that student away no matter how costly her needs may be — and special education can be particularly costly. So most charter schools overseen by L.A. Unified pay to receive some level of special education services through the district itself. Charter schools can buy in at different levels, allowing them to keep either a lot or a little of their own special education funding to pay their own providers — but, in effect, insuring themselves so that if a particularly costly special education student enrolls, this student can receive services through L.A. Unified. In Tuesday's deal, though, the district affirmed charter schools are not bound to buy into L.A. Unified's "Special Education Local Plan Area" — charters can shop around to other providers. But regardless of whom charters contract with, Melvoin noted district officials were able to preserve district-required language that binds all L.A. Unified charter schools to comply with a federal court order covering all special education.
- District officials will not prevent charter schools from reaching agreements to use L.A. Unified classroom space for more than one year. Eighty-nine charter schools operate out of L.A. Unified campuses, including 49 charters "co-located" at district-controlled sites through a state law known as "Prop. 39." These co-locations are a big issue in the district, and can become a flashpoint for conflict. But charter leaders contend the district's unwillingness to allow schools to sign long-term agreements at these sites only serves to increase the acrimony — and often leaves students and parents wondering if their school is going to move.
- L.A. Unified will shorten its timeline for resolving facilities disputes with charter schools. Yet another Prop. 39 related item: this is the mechanism the district has used to resolve disagreements over co-locations.
- District officials made explicit that they cannot close a charter school until all of the school's legal and administrative options for appeal are exhausted. Such a closure seems unlikely, but some charter school leaders were worried about it all the same.
United Teachers Los Angeles leaders had called on embattled L.A. Unified board member Ref Rodriguez to recuse himself from today's votes amid his ongoing criminal case and a separate investigation into possible conflicts of interest.
Rodriguez did not recuse himself. He was also not the deciding vote on any of Tuesday's charter votes by any stretch — all of the board's votes were unanimous.
This post has been updated to include more details of the deal and to include comments from board member Nick Melvoin.