Records obtained by The Times do not show a single case of a California charter school closed solely for poor academic performance, and some charter advocates believe this apparent leniency has done their cause a disservice.
"The whole thing needs to be leveled," said Brian Bauer, principal of Granada Hills Charter High School, speaking of the school district.
Bauer and others dedicated themselves to building a parallel structure of charter schools that, they hoped, would eventually suck the district dry by drawing away its students.
"We kind of looked around and saw that the capacity of the district to swallow enormous amounts of money was unchallengeable, insurmountable, as was its ability to sweep away reforms . . . with the stroke of a pen or the lock on an office," said Ted Mitchell, a key player in a series of local educational reform efforts who chairs the state Board of Education.
With 19 new charters opening within Los Angeles Unified this fall, there are now 161 authorized by the district. (There are also schools within the district that are chartered by the county or state.)
Among the goals of the charter movement from its inception was pushing traditional public schools to improve. In some cases, that might be happening.
View Park Preparatory Charter, an ICEF elementary school, has seen steady growth in test scores.
Six years ago, it appeared to provide a superior option to the nearest traditional elementary school, Fifty-Fourth Street Elementary, at least as far as test scores were concerned. But an interesting thing happened: Fifty-Fourth Street, whose students tend to come from poorer families, improved at a faster rate.
This year, it nearly caught up with View Park in English scores and surpassed it in math.
Whether this is the result of competition from the charter, an emphasis on testing or some other reason is hard to say.
Mike Piscal, ICEF's tough-talking founder, runs 13 schools in South L.A. and has set a goal of effectively taking over the district's role in that part of the city.
He sees no future for a district that, he says, sends only about 5% of its students in South L.A. schools to college.
"They're like an airline where only one in 20 passengers arrived at the location where they're trying to go," Piscal said. "They've lost the moral right to have a monopoly on the public schools."
Others see a future in which students have a choice of high-performing charter, magnet or traditional schools. Already, Los Angeles Unified is developing a new breed of traditional schools intended to have charter-like flexibility.
Even the teachers union has shown signs of at least a grudging acceptance of charters, only a few of which are unionized. The union is talking of organizing charters, not just opposing them.
"The union's position on charters has evolved over time," said UTLA Vice President Gregg Solkovits. "I think that the best way to describe our position now is, it's not so much a question of charter or no charter but is it the best school for all students, including special education students, including English language learners?"
Bauer, the Granada Hills principal who wanted the district "leveled," said he actually sees that happening -- but from inside, and by the district's own choice. "I think the current centralized L.A. Unified structure is being leveled by the superintendent and board," he said.
"I think the climate has changed a lot," said Jennifer Epps, principal of , a high-performing elementary school in Historic South-Central.
"I think that just overall, they've been realizing that what they're doing isn't necessarily right for every school . . . and they're saying, 'We don't have the resources to change these schools fast enough. . . . We need other solutions.' "