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Charter-school reforms we need, and one we don't

It might not feel this way to the Los Angeles Unified school board, but the district owes a lot to charter schools. The publicly funded but typically privately managed schools have served as educational models, proving that low-income students of color can and do achieve. They have provided their students with a pathway to college during a time when L.A. Unified shamefully failed to offer all the required college-prep courses at some of its high schools. And as their numbers have grown, charter schools also have become the competition that challenged L.A. Unified to up its game, which is why the district has been opening more of its popular magnet schools.

But what the board seemed to remember most about charter schools during a recent meeting was that they attract students, which means they also draw state funding that would otherwise go to district schools. L.A. Unified’s finances are wobbly to say the least, so that was enough for the board to endorse legislation that would severely undermine the charter-school movement in California.

The original version of the bill (SB 808) would have allowed only school districts to authorize charter schools; right now, the state and county departments of education can approve charter applications that have been turned down by their local districts. It also would have allowed district school boards to reject charter applications if the new school would ”impose a financial hardship” on a district, no matter how educationally promising the school might be, or how badly parents in the neighborhood might need a higher-performing school where they could send their kids.

Most charter schools aren’t good for school districts’ bottom lines, so the L.A. Unified board might just as well have hung a big “Kill the Charters” sign on its dais.

Although lawmakers have tempered some of those provisions, the board’s endorsement of them is another sad example of how political wrangling is overshadowing the very real need for reform in California’s charter sector. Most of L.A.’s charter schools have benefited local students, according to a study out of Stanford University. But not all of them have done so, and statewide, the picture is more mixed. California was at the forefront of passing laws to encourage charter schools, but those laws never included the necessary regulations that would guard against unsavory practices and low performance. These are problems that the legislature should try to address.

For example, dozens of charter schools’ websites say that they require parents to volunteer significant amounts of time to the school, an unfair deterrent to families that can’t afford to do so. A 2016 report by the American Civil Liberties Union outlined other ways that charter schools allegedly kept out students who were less likely to succeed: creating lengthy and daunting applications, sometimes available only in English; demanding Social Security cards and other documents that would reveal a family’s immigration status, discouraging applicants who weren’t fluent in English; requiring documentation of special-education needs; forcing kids who’d earned low grades in previous schools to take extra classes; and expelling students who got low grades once admitted.

Such practices violate at least the spirit of the open-admissions rule that’s supposed to govern charter schools, but the law has been mushy about its requirements and who enforces them. California also spends too little on charter-school oversight, allowing bad practices by charters to continue for too long. And it’s true that county and state boards have been too quick to approve charters that districts had rejected, and too hands-off. There have been serious concerns, for instance, about the financial dealings of the Celerity Educational Group, a charter organization with several schools in the region, yet the state board brushed those aside in approving two new Celerity schools last year. Only now, with a federal investigation under way and Celerity’s accreditation threatened, has the board refused to renew two other Celerity schools.

Two other bills that were justifiably supported by the L.A. Unified board would address limited concerns: AB 1360 would require charter schools to follow the same rules as traditional public schools on admissions, suspensions and expulsions. And AB 1478 would require charter school operators to comply with the state’s public-records and open-meetings law.

But this is merely a start. What’s missing is comprehensive legislation to make sure that charter schools operate fairly and fulfill their promise of superior public education, with proper oversight that itself needs to be regulated so that it is both effective and just. It’s been a quarter of a century since the Legislature passed the bill that gave charter schools their start in California. Back then, few could have foreseen the complications that would arise. But arise they did, and Sacramento has been allowing them to fester for too long.

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