A controversial $490-million plan to more than double the number of charter schools in Los Angeles is facing its first major political test this week as the Board of Education considers two proposals aimed at limiting the growth and independence of charters.
One of those would have the school board go on record opposing plans by the Broad Foundation and others to enroll half the district's 650,000 students in charter schools within the next eight years. The other would require charters to disclose much more information about their operations, including salaries, actions taken by the board against the schools and the services available to disabled students.
Both proposals are supported by the United Teachers Los Angeles union, which has emerged as the most vocal opponent of the charter expansion. Over the last few weeks, the union has held protest rallies, forged an alliance with organized labor in the city and even created an effigy of Eli Broad, the philanthropist spearheading the charter plan.
Until now, school board members have not been forced to take a position on the Broad proposal, though some have expressed concerns about charters draining money and higher-performing students from traditional schools. The union is hoping to lock in school board opposition early as it campaigns against the charter expansion.
But officially joining the opposition also poses risks for school board members and the district. State law requires school systems to approve new charters regardless of the financial impact on the district. The Los Angeles Unified School District faces lawsuits if it rejects charters without cause. Moreover, a vote would force board members to take sides — and face the political consequences.
At one level, the debate is a continuation of the last school board election, in which charters and unions, the major funders, battled to a split outcome. The result was not just about the candidates but about which approach to improving schools would lead the way in the nation's second-largest system.
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Supporters see independently operated, publicly funded charters, most of which are nonunion, as a better alternative to regular schools. Unions and other charter critics would prefer to see more investment in existing campuses. L.A. has the most charter schools of any city.
"This is an extension of an old political war that has thus far produced no winners," said Charles Kerchner, a research professor at Claremont Graduate University, who writes about local labor and education politics. "Depending on how the war is waged in Los Angeles, there may be a vigorous counterattack at the state level, and rumblings about repeal of the charter law may make it to the Legislature or ballot."
A change in law might be necessary to stop the Broad plan, and such an effort is under discussion, said sources close to the school board and the union who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
As the law stands, a district that turns down valid charter petitions faces legal risks, said Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento.
Should the district move in that direction, "we would certainly have a very swift and strong reaction to that," said Myrna Castrejón, acting chief executive of the California Charter Schools Assn. "It seems that UTLA is stirring up a lot of anxiety unnecessarily before there is something concrete to react to."
The resolution against the Broad plan closely echoes the union's critique of it. Union leaders had approached all board members about supporting or sponsoring such a motion.
They found an ally in Scott Schmerelson, who had spoken strongly against the charter expansion. Schmerelson, a retired principal, acknowledged that UTLA offered draft language for a resolution in a meeting at the end of September but said it has since evolved in tone and content to reflect his views.
"We need to begin a serious dialogue and reexamination of charter-authorizing regulations and procedures," he said. The goal is to ensure "access to quality public education for all students."
His motion states that the school board "opposes the Broad Foundation plan and all initiatives that present a strategy designed to serve some students and not all students."
It also characterizes charters as privately operated and unregulated; charters counter that they operate under different rules, but that they do strive to serve all students.
And, Schmerelson's resolution says that rapid, unchecked growth of charters could result in fiscal ruin for L.A. Unified and harm students in the process.
On Monday, most board members either could not be reached or declined to comment on the proposal. Board President Steve Zimmer said he supports it. Three other board members — Richard Vladovic, Monica Ratliff and George McKenna — have expressed reservations about the charter expansion. And two — Monica Garcia and Ref Rodriguez — said they support giving parents choices that include charters as well as strong programs in district-run schools.
The head of the teachers union called the upcoming school board action a milestone.
"We see this as a beginning step in taking on unaccountable billionaires and for investing in our schools," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of UTLA. "It's very important for the board to go on the record against a plan that doesn't hold each school to the same standard and therefore is going to leave the highest-needs students behind."
The Broad Foundation depicted the charter resolution as off point and out of date.
The draft plan "has evolved over the past months and does not reflect ongoing conversations with community groups about how best to improve public schools for all Los Angeles students," said Paul Pastorek, president of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, in a statement. "The resolution opposes old news. Our goal is to ensure every student in Los Angeles has access to a high-quality public school. We want to work collaboratively with the district so that together we can make that goal a reality."
The foundation did not provide an updated version of the plan.
The second resolution, which would require expansive new disclosures from charters, is sponsored by Ratliff. It closely resembles proposals put forward by former board member Bennett Kayser that were never acted on. Kayser lost his bid for reelection after a deluge of charter spending against him.
If approved, charters would need to be more transparent about their curriculum content, whether their teachers are fully credentialed and how they comply with public meeting rules.
Charters have been criticized for failing to operate as openly as public schools should.
Castrejón, of the charter group, declined to criticize the second resolution or Ratliff, saying that the board member appeared willing to discuss possible revisions.
Under board rules, a resolution first is introduced for public review, then voted on at a later meeting, typically the following one; it would need four votes to pass.
(The Broad Foundation has given money to the California Community Foundation and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles to support Education Matters, a Times digital initiative devoted to more in-depth reporting on schools.)