The Balance of Power on the Board is at Stake
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
With California’s March 3 primary elections less than a month away, Harbor Area voters must still come to terms with a couple of facts:
Fact #1: This year’s school board races are about the balance of power between pro and anti charter school forces on the board of the Los Angeles Unified School district. Yes, this year’s school board race is about student achievement, school funding and large class sizes despite declining enrollment. But make no mistake, a large part of this race is about charter schools.
Fact #2: Charter schools and co-locations with charter schools won’t be going away no matter how much you wish for it. And there sure as well won’t be a moratorium on charter schools.
If that’s not enough to convince you how important an issue charters are in this race, get a load of our sidebar showing the slew of charter school-related bills Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in 2019 that have been enacted this month.
Below are the answers to the charter school and co-location related questions Random Lengths posed to the top four candidates running for the Los Angeles Unified 7th District. We separated the candidates’ answers about charter schools to give Random Lengths readers an unvarnished look at the candidates’ views without the spin. The candidates submitted their answers in November 2019.
1. Some believe that charter schools aren’t carrying their fair share of the financial costs of education in the LAUSD, from educating special needs students to paying their fair share of plant, maintenance and utilities on campuses. Do you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?
At a recent school board meeting, the board unanimously renewed 17 charter schools – and at the same time held up the renewal of a number of these schools until the charters paid a penalty for unused school district space. This was an appropriate action. Invoicing of charter schools to meet the expenses of operating and supporting their schools must be facilitated – especially given the fiscal challenges LAUSD is facing.
Whether or not charter schools are meeting the financial burden of educating their students must be addressed – but that is an accounting function that can be easily assessed. Also, charters are required in their petition and during their annual review by their authorizer to demonstrate how they are serving a similar student demographic as the district, including special needs students. This was reiterated in the governor’s budget this year. The district is responsible to ensure this is happening. They (both the district and charters) need to be held accountable to assure “similar student demographics.”
I agree. Recent reports estimate that the charter industry costs LAUSD nearly $600 million a year because of declining per-pupil funds while public schools still have to pay fixed costs. This concerns me because my top priority is to make our neighborhood public schools the first choice for our families by securing and investing resources in our neighborhood schools.
The district has a responsibility to consider how new charter schools impact or burden our neighborhood public schools, where the majority of LAUSD students are enrolled. The funding of our schools is directly linked to student enrollment. When student enrollment in neighborhood schools declines, per-pupil funds for those schools decrease as well. Meanwhile, neighborhood schools must still cover the fixed costs of maintenance and operations.
Thanks to the passage of Assembly Bill 1505, the district can now ask how a new charter will [affect] the fiscal health of nearby schools and whether the school’s teachers are qualified to educate our children. As a state and local school district, we have strayed from the original intent of charter school legislation. The original purpose of a charter school was to develop innovative strategies to improve student learning and bring those lessons and models back into the neighborhood schools. Unfortunately, in Los Angeles, the rapid growth of the charter industry has created the largest concentration of charters in the nation, which is affecting both charter and neighborhood schools.
Instead of being laboratories of innovation that develop strategies to benefit all students across the district, charter schools are in direct competition not only with neighborhood schools but with each other as well. At times this results in the abrupt closure of charters because of under-enrollment — often leaving parents scrambling to find another school for their children.
My older brother has Down Syndrome and I worked at the Special Education Hearing Office in Sacramento throughout college. For the past seven years I have worked for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, Compton Unified School District and Oakland Unified School District to hold charter schools more accountable. These personal and professional connections to the work of special education and charter accountability equip me to continue to apply pressure to existing charters to either directly serve their fair share of students with moderate/severe disabilities, or rejoin the district SELPA [Special Education Local Plan Area] as full members paying for the full cost of indirectly serving all students.
Today, charter schools are not serving their fair share of students with moderate to severe disabilities. This is most evident by the fact that charter schools spend little to no money on bus transportation, while LAUSD spends millions to transport students with disabilities to their respective schools. Charter schools have an ethical and fiscal responsibility to serve kids of all abilities and I plan to hold them accountable in doing so as the District 7 trustee.
Tanya Ortiz Franklin
All public charter schools must both pay and receive their fair share. Given what is publicly available information and that each charter goes through an individual process, it is challenging to fully assess the accuracy of the all-encompassing fair share financial burden question.
As a board member with fuller access to information, I will pursue all avenues to ensure all budgets are maximized efficiently and effectively to meet the needs of all students. The recent concerns about charters paying for unused but designated classroom spaces on co-located campuses has resulted in real dollars owed to the district.
The concerns about charter schools serving students with special needs is particularly nuanced when considering how much autonomy their Memorandum of Understanding allows (i.e. Options 1, 2 and 3) and how much full inclusion (a model used more often in charter schools) benefits students based on their specific disability and Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
As a board member, it will be my responsibility to ensure budgets reflect our values of student achievement, transparency, equity and sustainability
2. Co-location has been a hot button issue over the past 20 years and particularly over the past two years. Do you support a moratorium on co-location? Why or Why not?
Proposition 39 requires the district to ensure charter schools have equal access to available space on district campuses. However, more and more we hear of stories where co-location does not work. Therefore, while Proposition 39 is the law, I want the voice of school stakeholders to be strong in any decision to co-locate. At the same time, if school enrollment continues to drop given the current reality of much lower birth rates, co-location might not be necessary due to additional available space including entire schools. This is a reality most stakeholders are not aware of – diminishing birth rates are drastically lowering our overall school population.
Estimates for the coming two or three years are 2 percent less annually, which would mean about 10,000 fewer students each year in our traditional schools or overall 30,000 fewer students in three years. This is 30,000 open seats on top of the thousands already open – we should be able to strategically use these already built seats and offset the operating cost by allowing charters to pay for their use via entire schools (40,000 open seats = 80 closed elementary schools or a smaller number of all three levels of schools). This seems like a logical solution to a decreasing enrollment reality and our already noted operating budget challenges – with no co-location.
Some of our District 7 schools have been targeted for “co-locations,” where a charter school and a neighborhood school co-exist on the same campus but are run separately. The charter school is permitted to take over “unused space” from an existing public school, such as classrooms, computer labs, the nurse’s office and counselor offices. Co-locations are like an arranged marriage that doesn’t suit either party. They stoke the fears of parents and students, often with misinformation about school achievement and our neighborhoods and they pit parents against parents for school resources that are already scarce.
Unfortunately, because co-locations are guaranteed under state law, Proposition 39, a moratorium isn’t possible. However, the district can and must make sure that co-located charters are transparent by including parents and educators from the neighborhood school in decision making. It is also important that co-locations do not disrupt the learning environment of existing neighborhood schools.
The school board should work to unite communities, not divide them. As a board member, I will discourage the district from approving co-location sites within the limits of the current law. That’s why I support the direction of AB 1505, which gives school districts more discretion to consider the fiscal impact and educational credentials of a proposed charter school.
As it relates to co-locations, I was actually a part of one as a principal in South LA at the Henry Clay Middle School Complex. I understand the disruption to school operations and the demands on school leaders’ time to implement, manage and maintain co-locations. Even with this considered, I do not support a moratorium on co-locations because such an action would be illegal because LAUSD does not have exclusive use/empty schools to offer under Proposition 39. It is fiscally reckless to open the district up to costly litigation and settlements that will have to be paid out to charter schools by not making legally compliant space offers. Instead, the district needs to use the laws already available to them under Proposition 39 to help protect the district’s interests.
I am well versed in Proposition 39 processes, laws and litigation to date as I have led this work across the state over the past seven years. I have stood strong and firm in my interpretation and application of the legislation that explicitly states that district programs need not be disrupted in order to fulfill Proposition 39 obligations to charters. I also charged charter schools the legally permissible overallocation penalties/fees for requesting more space at district schools than their in-district enrollment required. I did so at the end of each year on behalf of the district I work for.
I explained to United Teachers Los Angeles in writing on Aug. 20, 2019 how LAUSD had not charged charter schools this fee allowed by law. On Aug. 25, 2019 a headline read that “LAUSD Abruptly Cracks Down On Charter Schools…” by charging them for three years of overallocation penalties to the tune of $6.7 million dollars. The problem is that these charges should never have been allowed to accumulate and should have been defensibly levied on an annual basis.
LAUSD dropped the ball and failed to bill charters annually and now is demanding three years back pay. Beyond being unprofessional, the district may not have a legal leg to stand on in issuing these bills long after the charter leases in question expired. Board actions attempting to collect three years of payment from charter schools, instead of one/last year, opens the district to costly lawsuit(s) that LAUSD will most likely lose.
As the District 7 trustee, I will hold both charter schools and the district to high expectations that are rooted in the law, so precious resources will not be wasted on lawsuits that cannot be won due to district negligence.
Tanya Ortiz Franklin
The challenges of co-locations are very real for all stakeholders, however, a co-location moratorium would likely be found to be unlawful under the requirement of Proposition 39. Unless the district was still able to make available reasonably equivalent facilities to in-district public school students at charter schools – perhaps by closing traditional district schools and offering full sites to charters – I believe we will need to continue to operate co-locations to be legally compliant and serve all public school students.
I have first-hand experience of how challenging they can be, working at several co-located sites, determining calendars of shared spaces, managing student and staff conflicts, and communicating with families and all stakeholders about big, often uncomfortable changes.
I have also observed a healthy co-location where the two schools share school-wide expectations (that are printed on banners and posted on walls across the school), conduct morning assemblies and lessons with both schools and invite families from both schools to events. Co-location will no doubt continue to invoke feelings across all perspectives and it will be the board’s job to help make it easier for everyone involved. This could include financial support, meeting facilitation, longer and clearer timelines and meeting other needs as determined by the school sites.