L.A. Unified takes a harder look at its charter schools. Critics blame politics

Some years back, when administrators at a group of Los Angeles charter schools ordered the entire instructional staff to cheat on state standardized tests, the charter division at the Los Angeles Unified School District was at first willing to forgive what had happened and move on. 

But last week, the L.A. Board of Education followed the recommendation of the charter division and voted to shut down three charters, ostensibly because their parent organization had been sluggish in providing requested paperwork that was important but not crucial to the schooling of students.

Although district officials insist they’ve been consistent and diligent, some pro- and anti-charter forces perceive a charter division that demands more from — and favors fewer — charters.

Within its boundaries, L.A. Unified authorizes these independently managed schools and then evaluates whether to renew them every five years. At the same time, the district is competing intensely with these charters over student enrollment and the education dollars that come with it. 

“Renewals have become a public trial before the school board,” with rules and arguments over what evidence can be reviewed and impassioned testimony from charter supporters, said Charles Kerchner, senior research fellow at Claremont Graduate University. “The structure of this process is unworkable for both the district and charter operators.”

Last week the school board voted to not grant renewals to schools that it had approved twice before: three campuses operated by Magnolia Public Schools and two others run by Celerity Educational Group. Academically, all are performing acceptably or better, according to L.A. Unified’s criteria. 

The interaction between charters and L.A. Unified is complex and often strained. For much of the last two decades, the district grudgingly approved charters; it had to under state law, provided that a prospective charter properly completed a lengthy application process.

With support from private philanthropy, the number of charters in L.A. Unified has exploded to 225, the most in any American school system, attracting about 16% of enrollment. Powerful pro-charter reformers, including local philanthropist Eli Broad, want rapid growth to continue, even in the face of declining overall enrollment.

Many educators in traditional schools worry that this expansion could force L.A. Unified into bankruptcy, hurting public school students.

In this climate, charter advocates accuse the district of accelerating efforts to stymie charters through obstructionism and an avalanche of paperwork.

The charter cheating scandal occurred in 2010, when a whistleblowing teacher told L.A. Unified that Crescendo charters chief executive John Allen had ordered principals and teachers to look at the state tests in advance and drill students accordingly. Many witnesses stepped forward to corroborate the allegations, which Allen denied. 

Allen was the choir director at the church of then-school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, and this relationship nearly saved the Crescendo schools and his job — until the matter was exposed by The Times

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Charter advocates see the fate of Magnolia as an example of the other extreme, in which “side issues” or politics appear to trump merit.

Officially, the transgressions that sank the three Magnolia schools included incorrect wording in their renewal petitions. The charter division also highlighted problems between Magnolia and the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a quasi-governmental organization, which the school district pushed Magnolia to hire to remedy poor financial management.

The fiscal team, which helps educational organizations meet financial and management responsibilities, complained that Magnolia was slow to hand over documents. Magnolia blamed the transition to an improved financial system. When the fiscal team threatened to walk out, Magnolia negotiated a new contract with it and pledged to collaborate better.

Board members cited the problems with the fiscal team as a major reason to close the schools at the end of this school year.

Unofficially, some district officials were at least as concerned about Magnolia’s past practice of importing nearly 100 Turkish workers — mainly teachers — and their families and using taxpayer funds to pay their immigration fees. Because the visas were legal, however, bringing in the teachers didn’t constitute grounds for closing the schools.

Board members also could have been concerned about possible future revelations, given that the Turkish government has singled out charters with heavily Turkish boards, accusing them of playing a part in fomenting last summer’s attempted coup.

L.A. Unified’s charter division defends its oversight by noting that the rate of charter renewals is consistently high. Last year, the division recommended approving 34 of 35 renewal petitions, and the board voted in favor of all 35. 

However, the number of denials last week was greater than in the last four years combined, according to figures reviewed by The Times. And the rate of approval for new charters has dropped steeply. 

Last year, 10 of 17 — or 59%— of petitions were approved. In previous years, the rate went as high as 96%. An additional seven applicants last year, possibly fearing rejection, withdrew petitions before they went before the board.

“High-performing organizations have been asked not to submit a new petition or...to expand and to instead focus on their existing schools,” said Jason Mandell, a spokesman for California Charter Schools Assn. “It seems even the slightest discrepancy or administrative misstep is used to allow the district to bring the hammer down.”

Jeanne Allen, head of the pro-charter Center for Education Reform, based in Washington, D.C., said school districts should not be forced to oversee charters — and that charters should not be forced to submit to local districts. If universities, for example, also could authorize charters, she said, then local districts could no longer target charters unfairly.  

Charter critics, meanwhile, cite research suggesting that unscrupulous charter operators are getting away with too much already — profiting through self-dealing, turning away some students and requiring voluntary labor from parents.

UCLA education professor John Rogers wants state law to require more transparency from charters. And he’d give districts more latitude in evaluation. School boards, he said, should be able to consider whether a charter is having a negative effect on the students of the district as a whole. Or whether it has encouraged parents, community members and possibly students to take part in leading the school.

In responding to criticism of the denials, José Cole-Gutiérrez, head of L.A. Unified’s charter division, said a charter group’s past success is just one factor the district considers. Schools are not static, he said. Their situations and performance evolve.

Charters have much freedom, he said, but “there is an exchange. Autonomy for accountability.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

Editor's note: Education Matters receives funding from a number of foundations, including one associated with an individual named in this article. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Baxter Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the California Endowment and the Wasserman Foundation. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.

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