LAUSD Calls For Charter Moratorium After Teachers Strike

Charter school supporters gathered outside the headquarters of the L.A. Unified School District to oppose a proposed temporary moratorium that school board members were voting on on Tues., Jan. 29, 2019. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

A wide variety of anxieties about the state of public education in Los Angeles — ranging from high class sizes to low salaries — drove thousands of teachers to strike for six days this month.

But many striking members of the teachers union had another demand: do something about charter schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded and part of the L.A. Unified School District — but they're privately run. This means they have increasingly competed with LAUSD to enroll the city's students, and to capture the per-pupil funding that comes with those students.

Leaders of the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, proposed a solution to what they see as a growing threat: a cap on new charter schools within LAUSD. They even emerged from strike-ending negotiations last week with suggested legislation for a charter cap that the school board could vote on.

On Tuesday, the L.A. Unified School Board voted to go along. Board members passed a similar resolution calling not for a cap, but for a "temporary moratorium" on new charters in LAUSD pending a study of the charter school authorization laws California first passed in 1992.

Board member Richard Vladovic, the resolution's sponsor, called for the study to take no longer than "8 to 10 months."

Vladovic said he put forward the measure "in the spirit of unity," framing it as a "step back, after 27 years of an experiment, to see if it worked."

IT'S POLITICAL

LAUSD's resolution is non-binding; only Sacramento can alter the state laws allowing charter schools to start up. However, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state schools superintendent Tony Thurmond have both endorsed a temporary charter school moratorium, and Tuesday's vote provides another nudge to state lawmakers to follow through.

The vote also illustrates that LAUSD board politics are not cleanly split along "pro-charter" and "anti-charter" lines.

Four of the six current board members were once endorsed by the California Charter Schools Association. But only one member of this so-called "pro-charter" wing of the board, Nick Melvoin, voted against the resolution. The other three — including board president Mónica García, who's been a special target of anti-charter advocates and teachers union supporters — voted in favor of the charter school moratorium.

García said she saw a vote for the moratorium as an endorsement of the agreement that ended the teachers strike one week ago. She felt the study that the resolution called for might contain useful lessons, and a temporary moratorium might help turn down the temperature in the debate about charter schools.

"We have to stop the infighting and ... focus on where there are win-win strategies," García said. "This is an opportunity for that."

HOW PEOPLE FEEL ABOUT THE VOTE

Charter school advocacy groups mobilized a response Tuesday, gathering more than a thousand charter supporters outside LAUSD headquarters ahead of the vote, hoping to urge the board to reconsider. Many saw the vote as a slap in the face — and a surrender to rhetoric pitting charter parents against other LAUSD parents.

"Where I live, we need charter schools," said public commenter Elisa Avalos, a mother from the east San Fernando Valley. "I feel like public schools failed me. I'm not asking you to neglect public schools. I love public schools. I wish my son would've gone there."

"I think it's past time we started talking about accountability for the district's lowest-performing schools," said parent Roxann Nozario. "Why are these schools allowed to stay open, year after year? Maybe we should study that."

But United Teachers Los Angeles leaders and other moratorium supporters framed the growth of charter schools as an existential crisis for LAUSD — one that has starved the district, according to one union-commissioned estimate, of more than $500 million in potential revenue per year.

NOTE: "Charter schools" refers only to what LAUSD calls "independent" charter schools. This enrollment count excludes LAUSD's "affiliated charter schools," which are essentially district-run schools. (SOURCE: L.A. Unified School District)

"What happens to parents like me who are making the choice to go to a public school?" said public commenter Alicia Baltazar at today's school board meeting. "When you let all these charter schools come in and they start taking all the students, and they start taking with them all the funding, what does that leave us?"

"Everyone else wants to say 'public schools are horrible,'" Baltazar continued, "but they're not looking at 'why are they so horrible?' Why are they failing our students? Why is the money being funneled away so much into these charters, and not into public schools?'"

UTLA vice president Cecily Myaert-Cruz focused on the portion of the resolution calling for a study of charter growth: "We need to understand that if we are going to survive as a public, traditional school district."

HOW FAST ARE CHARTER SCHOOLS GROWING?

Two decades ago, charter schools in L.A. were niche.

In 2002, enrollment in LAUSD-run schools peaked at more than 737,000 students — and fewer than 10,000 students attended charters.

Since then, enrollment in district-run schools has declined by more than 30 percent — to just 484,000 students.

Meanwhile, charter enrollment has exploded. More than 117,000 students now attend more than 200 charter schools — more charters than any single school district in the U.S.

NOTE: "Charter schools" refers only to what LAUSD calls "independent" charter schools. This enrollment count excludes LAUSD's "affiliated charter schools," which are essentially district-run schools. (SOURCE: California Department of Education)

"Independent charter schools" are run by non-profit organizations, not the school district, with each reporting to its own appointed board.

Under California law, charter schools in L.A. Unified must submit to oversight by LAUSD officials and, under California law, local school boards have an up-or-down vote on applications to open new charters within their district's boundaries — but limited power to turn down a qualified applicant.

Board member Scott Schmerelson noted these limited powers have forced some frustrating choices. He says state law gives him little leeway to turn down renewals for schools accused of mismanagement. Schmerelson has also has been asked to approve renewals for charter schools that are academically underperforming — but that are allowed to remain open because they're only marginally better than others in the neighborhood.

Schmerelson said the district has little recourse when a charter school's enrollment does not "reflect the diversity of their surrounding communities."

"There are some charter schools that I consider to be mini-private schools," Schmerelson said. "The whole area is Hispanic and this charter school is mainly white. That's not diversity."

Charter school advocates would say the district is not totally hamstrung. To their point, LAUSD has threatened charter schools with closure or sanction in recent years for mismanagement or underperformance — and the California Charter Schools Association itself has called for shutting down schools that are underperforming.

In recent years, LAUSD board members have rarely rejected a petition to open new charter schools that comes up for a vote. When existing charter schools seek the "renewals" they need to stay open, board members have rarely turned them down.

In a statement Tuesday, CCSA called the district's proposed temporary moratorium the result of a "backroom deal" meant to placate teachers union supporters without addressing the true problem in L.A.'s public schools: "the persistent achievement gap."

"This resolution," said CCSA president Myrna Castrejón, "is a solution in search of a problem."


Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of public commenter Elisa Avalos. LAist regrets the error.