Huge Changes To California's Charter School Law Just Took Effect. Already, LAUSD Charters Are Worried

FILE: More than 250 students at South East High School, an L.A. Unified School District school in South Gate, protested the proposed co-location of a charter school on their campus on May 22, 2018. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

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It's been barely a month since huge changes to California's charter school laws took effect — and already, charters in Los Angeles are complaining that local officials' plans to implement the new law could put their schools at risk.

These huge changes, all part of Assembly Bill 1505, signed into law last October, were certainly likely to make it harder to open some new charter schools.

Still, some advocates for charters — publicly-funded schools run by non-profit groups — felt the new law codified a compromise that would at least make it easier for existing charter schools to survive in districts like L.A. Unified, where teachers' union arguments against charters appeared to be gaining ground.

But many local charter school leaders believe LAUSD's newly-written plan for carrying out the new law — which is up for a vote at Tuesday's school board meeting — shatters the compromise central to AB 1505, stretching the district's new regulatory powers in ways that could "ban new charter schools and close existing quality schools."

LAUSD's policy, "as drafted, is profoundly illegal," said Myrna Castrejón, president of the California Charter Schools Association.

While the association has a long list of objections — 10 pages worth, in fact — its main concern is new rules about where charters choose to house their schools. They basically say LAUSD is using concerns about limited real estate choices as a weapon that would help it deny new charter schools.

Officials in LAUSD's Charter Schools Division — the department that would actually carry out this new policy — declined an interview request.

But school board member Jackie Goldberg said most of the 224 independently-run charters currently operating in LAUSD have little to fear from the district's new policy. She argued the charter association's concerns stem from features of the new law, not from LAUSD overreach.

"Their view is, 'We like the old system,'" Goldberg said. "'Anything you're doing to change the old system was wrong.'"

FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND

Los Angeles is home to more charter schools than any other city in the nation. An estimated 118,000 children attend charters in L.A. — and Tuesday's vote is on a policy that, at one point or another, will affect each of these schools.

While charter schools are run separately from their districts, every charter needs the permission of a school board — an "authorizer" — in order to receive public funding. Every few years, existing schools must ask the board to renew their charters in order to remain open.

As we explained during the debate on AB 1505 last year, the state funds public schools on a per-student basis, which means every child who leaves LAUSD for a charter school costs the school district money. (Charter enrollments have been increasing in the last few years; LAUSD's enrollment has declined more rapidly.)

In the past, authorizers had complained that state law made it too hard to say "no" to charters' requests, even if it was potentially against the district's financial interests or the interests of the neighborhood.

AB 1505 shifts this balance of power. In short, the compromise at the heart of the new state law is: authorizers will have more power to reject bids to open new schools — but existing schools with strong test scores should have an easier time being renewed.

Tuesday's vote is LAUSD's attempt to update its procedures to follow this new law — and the compromise at its heart.

FILE: 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 Jan. 29, 2019. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

Q: WHAT IS TUESDAY'S FIGHT ABOUT? (A: BUILDINGS)

On July 27, the California Charter Schools Association sent LAUSD officials a 10-page letter outlining its objections to the proposal, setting the stage for Tuesday's debate.

While the association lists varied grievances with the proposal, Castrejón said a "primary concern" for her organization was an issue that has been central to numerous disputes with LAUSD in recent years: facilities.

In L.A.'s difficult real estate market, charter schools unable to build their own facilities often find themselves renting seemingly random spaces: downtown office suites, church-adjacent properties, former Hebrew schools and unused daycare spaces. Still others simply claim space on an LAUSD campus using a state law known as Proposition 39, which requires officials to "co-locate" charter schools on district-run campuses.

In short, the charter schools association claims LAUSD's new policy attempts to unfairly use charter schools' difficulty finding facilities against them: Charter advocates fear language in the district's proposal suggests a school's request for Prop 39 space could be used as grounds to deny an application to open a new school.

Since the association sent its July 27 letter, the district has amended its proposal to explicitly say that requesting a Prop 39 co-location "by itself, will not be deemed against the entire community's interest." Still, Castrejón argued the co-locations aren't supposed to factor into new charter school applications at all.

"AB 1505 was never intended," said Castrejón, "to supersede voter-approved provisions of Prop 39 that ensure charter school families have access to publicly-owned, district-managed facilities. In fact, it was explicitly carved out."

And any time a school moves to a facility more than three miles away, the new policy calls for a vote of the school board — which Castrejón called unnecessary, "massive overreach" and a departure from past practice.

'THE BEST INTEREST OF THE COMMUNITY'

Goldberg argued the new law does invite LAUSD to place facilities issues on the scale as it weighs charters' requests.

"The reality is that we always looked at facilities," she said, "but now they take a new meeting."

In general, Goldberg is no fan of Prop 39 co-locations, saying they're "terrible for everybody." Charters are occasionally split across two or three different LAUSD campuses; the district-run school is often forced to give up spaces they're using as labs, parent centers or music rooms.

That said, Goldberg rejects the notion that a Prop 39 request alone would be enough to sink a new charters' application under LAUSD's new policy.

AB 1505 allows school districts to analyze whether a charter school is "demonstrably unlikely to serve the interests of the entire community in which the school is proposing to locate" — including cases where a new charter "would substantially undermine" schools already operating in the neighborhood.

Therefore, "the only way [a Prop 39 request] would be held against them," Goldberg said, "was if co-locating them somewhere undermines the existing school. We have cases where that has happened, and cases where that has not happened."

She also defended the idea that the school board should have to vote any time a charter moves to another facility: "If you apply to serve a community which by anybody's definition is underserved, and then you want to move to a location where that is not true, how is that demonstrably not undermining a program?"

Even before her most recent election to the board, Goldberg has argued certain neighborhoods have become overly saturated with charter schools, creating neighborhoods of half-empty schools.

"If you want to put another charter school around a high school that's already surrounded by too many charter schools and is underperforming, we can say 'no' now — that that is not in the best interest of serving the community."

"It isn't even in the best interest of other charter schools," Goldberg added, "much less LAUSD."

But Castrejón said the district's proposal offers a foothold to groups that oppose charter schools on principal. She said the influence of LAUSD's teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, remains a "threat" to charters.

UTLA's 2019 strike helped drive the case for AB 1505 in Sacramento. Locally, the union has mounted increasingly vocal protests against co-locations.

"It is their intent," Castrejón said, "to turn 1505 into another arrow in their quiver to shut down charter schools whether existing or new."

Goldberg said some new petitions are likely to face tougher scrutiny — but estimated "85 percent" of LAUSD's existing charters are likely to have no problem with their renewals.

But there's a silver lining for charters that don't pass muster with LAUSD: they're able to appeal their denial to the L.A. County Board of Education, which historically has been a charter-friendly body. Preserving that right to appeal was also part of the AB 1505 compromise.

WHAT'S NEXT

Tuesday's vote of the LAUSD board will not be the last word.

Castrejón said the State Board of Education will likely vote on regulations on implementing AB 1505 this winter — regulations that will have the force of law, which could also shape how LAUSD handles future authorizing decisions.

Facilities issues between LAUSD and charter schools have spurred lawsuits in the past, and Goldberg wouldn't be surprised if this new dispute triggered even more litigation. She said the charter association has motivated, deep-pocketed donors, and believes they'd be willing to underwrite another legal fight with LAUSD.

Among charter school advocates, the California Charter Schools Association raised eyebrows when it dropped its opposition to AB 1505 last fall. Some charter supporters wondered why the association backed off, arguing the new law could subject charter applicants to the whims of politically-hostile board members at both the district and county level.

Castrejón acknowledges new charter applicants and applicants appealing decisions against them are likely to face tougher fights in the AB 1505 era — but she believes that if the law is implemented fairly, successful charter schools will blossom.

"We do not believe," said Castrejón, "it was the spirit of the governor's compromise ... that [AB 1505] should be used to decrease the number of good options for students."