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Group vows to rescue L.A. students one good school at a time

Organizers of a controversial educational reform effort that initially sought a massive expansion of charter schools in Los Angeles now say they will support any effective programs – including traditional public schools – to bring high-quality options to the 160,000 students they identify as attending failing public schools.

Great Public Schools Now, which will name its first grant recipients Thursday, says any top-notch programs may apply for funding — including those within the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose underperforming campuses its organizers have criticized.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for them to join us and for us to join them and be partners in this effort,” said Maria Casillas, a former L.A. Unified senior administrator who serves on the board of the group.

The nonprofit has targeted 10 L.A. areas based on poverty and low test scores — in the San Fernando Valley, near downtown, and neighborhoods to the south and to the east. They include Pacoima, Panorama City, Boyle Heights, Westlake-Pico Union, Watts, Vermont Square, and the city of South Gate, which is served by L.A. Unified.

“More than 160,000 low-income students and English-language learners are enrolled in schools whose performance is so dismal that 80% of students are learning below grade level,” the plan states.

Critics said they believe that — despite the public stance — the reform effort has changed little since The Times last year published leaked details of a draft plan that set goals of opening 260 new charters and moving half of L.A. Unified students into charters within eight years. 

“This new plan is a public-relations move meant to distract from the original proposal, which was greeted with widespread condemnation,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the district teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

Such a strategy, he and other critics say, could leave thousands of students worse off than before.

The school system already has the nation’s largest number of students in charters, about 100,000 or 16% of total enrollment. 

The nonprofit’s plan, released Wednesday, says the money raised will go, among other things, to provide classroom space — a key need for charters. It also will give new schools money to operate until state funding, based on a school’s full enrollment, is sufficient to carry costs. Other grants could go to training teachers and principals and to expanding enrollment at existing schools.

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The 16-page plan, though thin on details, is the nonprofit’s first formal framework. The group’s early focus will become more clear when the first grant recipients are identified.

Initial debate over the reform effort was shaped by the confidential 44-page draft obtained by The Times. The draft, prepared under the auspices of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, appeared to have been written to attract potential funders.

The Broad Foundation quickly defined that document as something for “preliminary discussion” and then distanced itself from direct control of the fledgling organization. Glenn Gritzner, spokesman for the nonprofit, said that since then, the mission has genuinely evolved based on input from 50 community groups.

The group’s board of directors — announced this week — has a decidedly pro-charter cast, but its members, too, insist that the goal is to support effective schools of any kind. 

Charter schools operate outside of direct district control and are exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. Most are non-union.

Critics point out that they take revenue generated by students away from the district and worry that unchecked charter growth would leave a diminished L.A. Unified with financially unsustainable pension and retiree health-care obligations. The district also would have fewer resources to help the remaining students, including the more difficult and expensive to educate, such as those with moderate to severe disabilities. 

These concerns are not exclusive to partisans. 

“When you’re going to create new choices for families at the scale that this initiative is envisioning, you have to insure there is equity built into the system,” said Thomas Toch, a research fellow, specializing in education policy, at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. “You have to make sure that all of these publicly funded schools function not as individual islands but as a system that insures that all students get a good education.”

That’s not impossible, Toch added.

The board of Great Public Schools Now includes former New York City schools official Marc Sternberg, who heads the K-12 efforts of the Walton Family Foundation, one of the nation’s leading incubators of charter schools. Also serving is Gregory McGinity,  who sits on the board of the California Charter Schools Assn. and is executive director of the Broad Foundation, which has made growing the number of charters a major focus. Retired banker Bill Siart is chairman.

The L.A. Board of Education is divided on the effort.

Monica Garcia called it an “inspiring opportunity to increase achievement, opportunity and learning for students.” 

To board president Steve Zimmer,  “the messaging seems very clear: that this is primarily about charter-school expansion.”

A better focus, he said, would be to make existing schools — including charters — more effective. 

With the release of its plan, the nonprofit is launching a six-figure TV and print campaign, including ads in the L.A. Times. 

“Let’s stop fighting and start fixing,” urges one, which then guides readers to the group’s website.

While insisting that its focus will be on all schools, not charters alone, the group isn’t disclosing some key details. It declined this week to identify its funders or state how much money they are providing.

But some of it could help the district, perhaps in expanding its popular magnet schools, said executive director Myrna Castrejón, who has met with new L.A. schools Supt. Michelle King three times.

Nothing concrete has emerged, said King, but “we are always looking for solutions that address the needs of all students. Any plan that looks to replicate high-quality public schools, including district schools, is one we look forward to hearing more about.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

Editor's note: Education Matters receives funding from a number of foundations, including one or more mentioned 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.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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