Slightly more than a fifth of all students in the Los Angeles Unified School District are currently enrolled in charter schools. That number would rise to nearly half of the district's students if the early ambitions of a group of charter organizations and their benefactors come to fruition.
The rapid ramp-up, if successful, would bring the number of students in Los Angeles charter schools to nearly 300,000, more than twice as many as anywhere else in the country. And if the charter schools of L.A.'s future are like the ones of its past, this could be a great thing.
Studies by Stanford University have found that although charter schools generally have a mixed record, those in Los Angeles have brought about significantly better academic outcomes for students than traditional district schools. The district's largest and best-known charter school organizations — Green Dot Public Schools, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools and so forth — have dedicated themselves to bringing higher-quality education to low-income minority students who previously had no alternatives to their low-performing district schools. Those respected groups are reportedly involved in the expansion talks, as is the Broad Foundation, whose philanthropist founder, Eli Broad, has long donated to charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated, and are free from many of the regulations that govern district schools. They're also free of sometimes stultifying union rules. The large charter presence in L.A. speaks volumes about the high levels of dissatisfaction with many of the district's regular public schools. Charter schools also have put significant competitive pressure on traditional schools, many of which have improved as a result, especially at the elementary school level.
Now, charter school organizations and their supporters seem ready to bet that within eight years, they can double their enrollment. It has taken two decades to build enrollment to the current level, but charter advocates say there is pent-up demand among families who believe their traditional public schools are improving too slowly or not at all. Waiting lists for charter schools in L.A. already exceed 40,000 applicants.
Of course, not all charter schools are great schools, and if there is to be a massive expansion, it will be important to make sure that those that do not do a good job are fixed or closed. Another issue is whether the charter operators — even the very good ones — can attract and retain enough high-quality teachers and administrators. It has never been done at this scale or in this time frame, and it would have to happen in the midst of a nationwide teacher shortage. And teacher turnover at charter schools is higher than at traditional public schools. That doesn't mean it can't be done, but it should be scrutinized along the way. The boldness of the plan should be applauded — poorly educated students can't wait forever for help — but charter leaders should move carefully if they are to be successful.
And there will undoubtedly be pushback from within the district. Some will come from the teachers union — United Teachers Los Angeles — which reviles charter schools and is dedicated to protecting its members' jobs at regular district schools. And some will come from L.A. Unified officials, who have long complained that the district loses state money when students decamp for charter schools, while charter operators contend that the district is simply unwilling to restructure itself to be more efficient.
One overriding principle should guide the school board as it considers new charter applications, and it has nothing to do with teacher jobs or the ramifications for the district's budget. It should be this: Will the charter applicant run a good school? Will it provide an excellent education for L.A.'s students? The needs of students, not those of the institution, are what matter.
The school district shouldn't seek to rein in charter growth, but it and the state should be doing a better job of overseeing such schools. There have been numerous reports that charter schools, in an effort to improve their test scores, have prodded their lowest-performing students to leave and return to traditional public schools. This never has been proved, but then again, no one has ever bothered trying to find out. The concerns have been worrisome enough, though, that new school board member Ref Rodriguez — a charter supporter and co-founder of a group of charter schools — wants the issue thoroughly investigated.
There also have been scattered cases of charter schools ensuring that they enroll only the most motivated and successful students by setting high bars for interested families, such as parent-volunteering requirements and long application essays. Efforts to cherry-pick students are unacceptable; charter schools are supposed to accept all comers, just as regular public schools do. (If too many apply, charter schools are supposed to use a lottery.) When they have been caught breaking or bending the rules, it has generally been by the media and student advocacy groups, not by the agencies responsible for approving and checking up on charter schools. The only serious official scrutiny that charter operators typically get is when they are issued the right to operate, and five years later when they apply for renewal. It would seem a more thoughtful approach could be developed.
A new era of charter schools is at hand, one in which they seek to be a bigger, more established player in the education arena rather than simply a model of how public schools might improve. But California law and policy need to be brought out of the 20th century. The state needs well-enforced rules requiring charters to keep their doors open to all students. Poor academic performance cannot be grounds for keeping a child from enrolling, or for telling him or her to leave. By all means, bring on more charter schools, as long as they are built on the principles of academic excellence and equal access for all.