The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools cluster, scheduled to open this fall on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel, was built at a cost of $578 million, or nearly $140,000 per student seat. It is without question the most expensive public school ever built in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and quite possibly the most expensive public school in the country.
The project’s astronomical cost raises a question about whether the school district is using resources efficiently. It also raises issues of fairness.
Proposition 39, which was passed by voters in 2000, requires school districts to provide charter schools with facilities that are reasonably equivalent to those of other schools in the district. About 60,000 students in L.A. Unified have opted to attend charter schools. But administrators have in no way tried to meet the “reasonably equivalent” standard.
Take the new school at the Ambassador site: It will consist of several small, independent schools sharing facilities such as playing fields and auditoriums. But will any of those small schools be a charter? Not a chance.
When charter schools manage to get funding to build their own schools independent of the district, they do so for far less money than the LAUSD does. Recently, the Alliance for College Ready-Public Schools broke ground on a facility within sight of the Watts Towers that will serve 550 students and will cost $8.8 million. That is $16,000 per student seat, or one-ninth the cost of the Ambassador site project.
And the Alliance site is no exception. Over the past several years, Green Dot built seven charter schools in the vicinity of the RFK Community School, and it spent less than $85 million for all of them. Those schools currently serve about 4,300 students, which means they were built for under $20,000 per student seat.
If the district had given the $578 million it spent on one school to charter schools, we would have created many more seats for students, and the seats would have been in schools that are providing great results for kids and their families.
Not only does the district overspend on the schools it builds; it consistently denies dozens of charter schools equitable use of its existing facilities. Each year, as required by Proposition 39, charter schools submit applications for space in LAUSD schools. But while some charters have been granted adequate facilities in the district’s existing schools, many have to rent their own space, which takes about 13% of their general funds on average.
This year, under Proposition 39, 81 of the 163 charter schools in the LAUSD applied to the district for facilities. About half received offers, but in our view the offers were not compliant with the law. Not only were none of the offers for space in the lavish new schools like Robert F. Kennedy, which were built at huge taxpayer expense, some were for far too little space — they would have housed only a portion of the students attending the charter. Other offers would have required schools to move far from their existing locations. As a result, my organization — the California Charter School Assn. — has filed a lawsuit against the LAUSD accusing it of failing to live up to the law.
Charter students deserve better, particularly when the schools many of them attend are making great strides in academic achievement in Los Angeles. The LAUSD has every reason to help charter schools grow, because that would help parents gain more faith in local public schools. As more families see the successes our schools are having, the charter movement will continue to grow, and the need for facilities will continue to expand. The LAUSD needs to work in partnership with the charters instead of treating our students as second-class citizens.
Separate and unequal is simply not OK.
Jed Wallace is president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Assn.