Do new charter schools really cost L.A. Unified more than $500 million a year? Charter and district leaders respond

The growth of independent charter schools pulls at least $500 million from the Los Angeles Unified School District annually, according to a report the teachers union commissioned.

District leaders want to respond to its findings but said Tuesday they need time.

The report's author, Susan Zoller of MGT of America Consulting, presented findings to the school board at Tuesday's meeting, during the time usually reserved for union reports.

Board members said that they and district staff had just received the report Monday or Tuesday. Charter schools are publicly funded but can be privately run. Like district schools they receive funding based on the number of students enrolled. So if students leave the district for charters, the district loses money. 

United Teachers Los Angeles gave The Times an advance copy, with the condition that the report could not be shared in advance of its release. 

Board member Monica Garcia asked that the report be placed on the June agenda so district staff and charter school leaders could have time to respond and discuss the findings. 

Board member George McKenna pointed out that if the report is going to be an agenda item in a future board meeting, staff should “make the rest of the agenda as thin as possible" because of the amount of contentious discussion there would be.

Superintendent Michelle King reminded board members they will already have a long meeting next month because they plan to discuss the school district's budget, and suggested convening a separate meeting to talk about this report. Another option, she said, is to fold discussion of the report into scheduled meetings about related topics,  such as the budget and special education.

The board needs to devote time to the report in a public meeting, as well as draft "a detailed response," said UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl. Board members need to put together an "aggressive lobbying plan,” he said. It would address state policies the report identifies that account for some of the district's revenue loss to charter schools. The district also needs to collect money from charters to make up for the loss, he said, and revisit the process for green-lighting new charter schools.

Sarah Angel, the L.A. managing regional director for the California Charter Schools Association, said the district needs to consider the role of charters in the context of the district's larger financial woes.

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, Angel hadn't read through the entire report, which is about 40 pages long, but she said staff members were analyzing it. Angel took issue with some of the data Zoller presented during the meeting, especially in regard to special education. She did not provide specifics on which data were  inaccurate.

The report states that the district has "a higher proportion of special education students than the charter schools (13.4% vs. 8.1%, as of December 2013)." Angel said a special education program type called Option 3, a type of funding agreement the district and charter schools created in 2011, has increased the share of Los Angeles students with disabilities in charter school.  

"What has totally gotten lost in all of this," Angel said, "is the focus on quality education."

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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