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L.A. Unified narrowly backs state bills for new controls over charter schools

A divided Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday voted to endorse and push for three hotly debated state bills that seek to place new controls on charter schools.

The 4-3 vote largely reflected an ideological split over the growth and oversight of charters, issues that have dominated the most expensive school board races in the country.

The L.A. school district’s official position could be short-lived because of an impending May 16 runoff election for two board seats. Both candidates supported by charter advocates said they would have voted against the resolution had they been on the board.

Assembly Bill 1478 would make charter operators subject to the same disclosures of open meetings, public records, conflicts of interest and finances that apply to traditional schools and school districts.

Assembly Bill 1360 would set new requirements for charter schools’ admission, suspension and expulsion policies, again bringing them more in line with traditional schools.

Senate Bill 808 would allow charter schools to be authorized only by the school district in which the charters would be located. Currently, charters can appeal a district rejection to county education offices or the state Board of Education.

Charters are privately operated public schools that are exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. A debate has long raged over the right balance between giving charters freedom to operate and setting up rules to limit potential abuses.

The board’s action not only put the L.A. Unified School District on the record, it did the same for individual board members and candidates running for the board.

Voting to support the three bills were school board President Steve Zimmer, who is locked in a difficult reelection contest, and board members George McKenna, Scott Schmerelson and Richard Vladovic, who are not on the ballot this year.

Most of the board’s deliberation was between McKenna, who sponsored the resolution, and Monica Ratliff, who is leaving the board at the end of June.

Ratliff said she had no problem supporting the two bills intended to protect the rights of students and provide greater transparency. But she objected to a provision of Senate Bill 808 that would allow school districts to deny charters on the grounds that they created a financial hardship on the local school system.

Funding follows students, and charters recruit most of their students from the local district. Under the hardship rationale, any charter could be turned down — which, Ratliff said, was unfair to both charters and students.

McKenna countered that the financial health of the district matters greatly to students who depend on it for services.

Ratliff proposed an amendment to strike Senate Bill 808 from the endorsement. Her amendment failed, so she voted against the resolution. Also voting against it were Monica Garcia and Ref Rodriguez, who are widely regarded as staunch charter allies.

“There are different solutions to what we’re trying to do here,” Rodriguez said. “This is too simplistic.”

“I am uncomfortable in the us and them of this legislation,” Garcia said.

The bills are strongly supported by the California Teachers Assn., a close ally of Gov. Jerry Brown. But the governor also has supported charters. Brown vetoed last year’s version of the open records and meetings bill. Assembly Bill 1478 goes further, extending disclosure rules to nonprofits that run charter schools.

The California Charter Schools Assn. is promoting alternative legislation that would require individual charter campuses to provide more public information but would not automatically apply these rules to organizations closely affiliated with these schools or to nonprofits that run multiple charters.

L.A. school board candidates backed by the charter association oppose the board-backed bills.

“While I support some of the underlying goals, including transparency and accountability, all three go too far,” said Nick Melvoin, who is in a runoff against Zimmer in District 4, which stretches from the Westside to the west San Fernando Valley. “The us-versus-them mentality that’s behind these anti-charter resolutions doesn’t improve educational opportunities for kids.”

Zimmer did not speak on the resolution, and he’s often voted to support charter schools. But he also has repeatedly expressed concerns that charters are expanding too much and too quickly. Pro-charter groups are spending millions to remove him from office. The teachers union is spending heavily to reelect him.

In District 6, in the east San Fernando Valley, Kelly Gonez has the support of charter backers to fill Ratliff’s seat. Gonez said she opposes the bills as currently written but believes in “comprehensive and meaningful accountability” for charters.

Neither Melvoin nor Gonez cited specifics about what made the bills unacceptable to them.

Imelda Padilla, the union-backed candidate running against Gonez, declined to state a position on the bills. “I think that injecting this debate into a school board race only encourages a charters-versus-teachers divide that doesn’t help kids,” Padilla said.

howard.blume@latimes.com

@howardblume

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