Plan to boost charters splits L.A. Unified board

Dividing lines quickly emerged on the Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday over an ambitious plan to double the number of charter campuses across the city, with two members vowing an all-out fight and two others applauding the expansion of choice for parents.

The three remaining board members had deep reservations about the $490-million proposal, suggesting that the money should be used for existing schools. One said the charter campaign should influence the selection of the next superintendent.

The unprecedented expansion plan, which seeks to shift half of L.A. Unified students into charters, is becoming the latest focal point in the battle over how best to improve the quality of education for half a million students.

"The concept amazes and angers me," said board member Scott Schmerelson. "Far from being in the best interest of children, it is an insult to teaching and administrative professionals, an attack on democratic, transparent and inclusive public school governance and negates accountability to taxpayers."

Interested in the stories shaping California? Sign up for the free Essential California newsletter >>

The project, which is being organized through the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, calls for creating 260 charters over the next eight years. The schools would enroll at least 130,000 students, according to a 44-page memo obtained by The Times.

Charters are independently run and publicly financed, exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses; most are nonunion.

Board President Steve Zimmer also had a strongly negative response, saying that the financial impact would be devastating for the students who remain in traditional schools.

"Everyone understands 250,000 kids will not be part of this," said Zimmer, who has criticized the rapid growth of charters. "There is collateral damage: We won't be able to lower class size or provide comprehensive support our kids need."

The private money, he said, "could ensure every child living in poverty in L.A. County ... could have access to high-quality early education."

See the most-read stories this hour >>

Board member George McKenna, along with Monica Ratliff, said he wanted foundation money "directed toward the public schools that are already established and need all the private support that we can get."

Ratliff also said that the charter plan underscores the need to hire a new superintendent who will promote L.A. Unified's own successes. The district has launched a search to replace schools Supt. Ramon Cortines who has said he wants to leave by year's end.

"It's important that a superintendent publicizes that LAUSD schools are extremely competitive" with the best charter schools, Ratliff said.

Richard Vladovic attempted to strike a more neutral tone but agreed that some district schools, especially magnet programs, also deserve more funding.

Monica Garcia and Ref Rodriguez, who were strongly backed by charter advocates in their election campaigns, said they support giving parents choices that include charters as well as district-run schools.

"I am open to bold ideas that are grass-roots driven, whether they come from teachers, students, families or community members," Rodriguez said. "We want our students and families to have high-quality options.… I welcome other and all ideas that are focused on creating quality and excellence in every single school across the district. There is no one path to excellence for our public schools."

The strongest critics of the expansion, Zimmer and Schmerelson, also are those with the deepest ties to the teachers union. Like them, McKenna also was elected with heavy union funding. Vladovic has both union and charter backers, and Ratliff was elected without significant financial support from either charters or the union.

In recent board elections, neither group could achieve a clear majority. And those divisions are reflected in board members' responses to the charter plan.

United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl called it an ill-conceived attempt by philanthropists who oversimplify the challenge of improving schools.

"It has long been known that there is a set of billionaires who are attempting to run schools more like a business and who are attempting to attack large urban systems and large urban unions," he said.

NEWSLETTER: Get the day's top headlines from Times Editor Davan Maharaj >>

The acting head of the California Charter Schools Assn. said the ambitious expansion was an effort to give parents the high-quality schools that they want for their children. Myrna Castrejon said the project is "doable," but charters always face political hurdles.

"There is no question that with a vigorous political opposition, getting our charters approved through that board is going to continue to be a challenge," she said. "Front and center that is probably the biggest obstacle."

Los Angeles Unified already has the highest number of charters — more than 200 — of any school system in the country, enrolling about 16% of students.

Currently, L.A. Unified has declining enrollment, and about half of that decrease is related to charter growth, according to a district analysis. Traditional schools in some areas already are short on students. and a few charters also have closed for that reason.

Backers of the expansion assert that competition has benefited students, producing high-performing charters and even spurred the district to improve. And the more competition the better, with the target being a "50% market share" for charters, according to the memo detailing the plan.

The Broad Foundation has given money to the California Community Foundation and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles to support Education Matters, a new Times digital initiative devoted to more in-depth reporting on schools.

Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times