The Los Angeles County Board of Education voted Tuesday to close an Inglewood charter school with a lengthy history of financial problems and mixed academic performance that illustrated flaws in California’s oversight system.
The board’s unanimous decision marks the third time it has attempted to shut down a charter school run by Today’s Fresh Start, a nonprofit started by a wealthy couple, Clark and Jeanette Parker of Beverly Hills. The group currently operates two charters on three campuses in Los Angeles, Compton and Inglewood.
A Times investigation published last year found that although the Parkers have portrayed themselves as philanthropists, they have made millions from their charter schools.
The schools paid more than $800,000 annually to rent buildings the couple own, financial documents showed. They contracted out services to the Parkers’ nonprofits and companies and paid Clark Parker generous consulting fees, all with taxpayer money.
The couple spent tens of thousands of dollars on lobbyists and campaign contributions to many of the people responsible for regulating their schools, including school board members and state elected officials.
The Parkers have denied any wrongdoing, calling the claims against them baseless and manufactured by opponents of their schools.
The board’s Tuesday vote, which affects only the Inglewood charter, leaves the future of the school, its staff and its more than 400 students in doubt.
Jeanette Parker declined to comment following the decision.
Under current California law, Today’s Fresh Start can appeal the county’s decision to the State Board of Education. A possible appeal would most likely be heard before July, when a new law takes effect that significantly limits the state board’s power to approve charter schools that have been rejected elsewhere.
Decisions like the county board’s vote to close Today’s Fresh Start are rare. Los Angeles County is home to more than 350 charter schools, most of which are routinely renewed every five years by the local school districts where they are located. Only six schools appealed renewal denials to the county in 2017-18 — the last time appeals were heard — and three were denied.
In their recommendation to close the school, consultants hired by the county voiced concern about students’ stagnant performance on the state’s standardized English language arts tests and said the school hadn’t met the necessary academic criteria to be renewed. On both English and math tests, students’ scores increased between 2015 and 2017 and spiked upward in 2018 before declining last year. The overall picture, they wrote, was “troubling.”
The consultants also raised questions about the nonprofit’s management and fiscal practices, adding that many of their concerns had surfaced more than a decade ago when the county board last tried to close one of the organization’s schools.
“It should be noted that concerns regarding conflicts of interest and self-dealing were significant bases for revocation 12 years ago,” the report stated. “Those concerns regarding conflicts of interest and self-dealing have continued to follow [Today’s Fresh Start] to this day.”
In letter to the county board, the Parkers defended Today’s Fresh Start as one of the few African American-founded and operated charter schools in the state, serving mostly low-income black and Latino students. Its school in Inglewood is a “sanctuary” for those students, they wrote.
“We have been quite exemplary in administering our program for the last 10 years,” Jeanette Parker told the board.
Rahul Reddy, a lawyer representing the charter school, said the county had no reason to be concerned about self-dealing because Today’s Fresh Start’s five-year construction management contract with Clark Parker expired in 2018.
Founded in 2003, Today’s Fresh Start and its schools have weathered more than a decade of intense scrutiny from regulators at both the county and the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The county board voted to revoke its charter in 2007 based on a detailed report accusing the Parkers of self-dealing, financial conflicts of interest and wrongly administering the state tests. The Parkers sued the county, and while the case worked its way through the courts Today’s Fresh Start applied to have its charter renewed, which the board also denied.
The state Board of Education overturned the county’s decision, however, giving the Parkers another chance.
In the years that followed, Today’s Fresh Start expanded. The Parkers won approval for a second charter school in Inglewood and, with the help of a nearly $20-million state grant, built a large school building on Imperial Highway.
In 2015, the Compton Unified School District assumed responsibility for overseeing one of the schools, later voting to extend its charter until June 2023.
The political landscape that drove the Parkers’ success began to shift last year.
A change in leadership at the Inglewood school district led staff to begin paying closer attention to the charter schools within its jurisdiction. Last year, when Today’s Fresh Start asked to have its charter renewed, the school board refused, citing the school’s erratic academic performance and operational concerns — leading to the county appeal Tuesday.
To remain open in Inglewood, Today’s Fresh Start must win over the state board on appeal. Under previous governors, the board had a reputation as a rubber-stamp for charter school applicants, but its membership has changed since Gov. Gavin Newsom’s election.
The politics around charter schools have also evolved. In California and across much of the country, a growing backlash against charters has pushed left-leaning state legislatures to place stricter regulations on how the schools are opened and overseen.
Beginning in July, school districts in California will have more authority to deny charter applications. In addition to academic performance, they will be able to weigh a charter school’s potential fiscal effects on the local district and whether the charter plans to offer programs that the district already provides.
“It won’t just purely be unchecked discretion to deny,” said Lisa Mori, an attorney who specializes in charter school law. “But they do have more basis upon which to deny new petitions, whereas before boards were pretty constrained.”
The prospect of more empowered school districts has fueled anxiety among charter advocates.
“We encourage schools to submit their renewals early!” the California Charter Schools Assn. suggests on its website, noting the date the new law takes effect.