What charter school supporters say they hope to change after school board victories

Students in the classroom of eighth-grade teacher Ron Ortiz at Magnolia Science Academy 4.
Students in the classroom of 8th-grade teacher Ron Ortiz at Magnolia Science Academy No. 4, which shares a campus with Daniel Webster Middle School.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Charter school backers put a lot of money behind candidates in this month’s Los Angeles school board elections.

They spent at least $9.7 million pushing for Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez in the nation’s most expensive local school board races.

In District 4, Melvoin upended school board President Steve Zimmer, a two-term incumbent backed by unions. In District 6, with no incumbent, Gonez beat out union-supported Imelda Padilla.

Now the seven-member board is about to have its first pro-charter majority.

Charter schools are publicly funded, privately run schools that are exempt from some of the rules that govern traditional public schools. In Los Angeles, they are mostly run by nonprofits, with a staff that is not unionized.

Los Angeles already has more charters than any other school district in the nation. We asked charter supporters to tell us why they pushed so hard for a school board power shift and what they hope will come of it.

A spirit of collaboration — but also growth

Charter school advocates have been careful to frame the election more as a win for families than charters.

“Charter schools made incremental progress [in the elections] last week,” said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Assn. “We’re pleased about that. We don’t want to overstate its significance.”

His organization’s political action committee gave at least $2.84 million to school board candidates.

Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who donated more than $2 million to the pro-charter candidates and the PACs that backed them, took a similarly nonpartisan tone. “What can happen is the charter schools and the public schools could pretty much unite,” he said.

In 2015, Eli Broad's foundation spearheaded a push to get half of L.A. Unified’s students into charters, an effort that backers now say is focused on finding ways to replicate great schools of any kind.

"This election was about the need to improve all our city’s public schools,” the philanthropist said in a statement.

Although charter backers speak of collaboration, charters remain largely at cross purposes with the district, which faces long-term budget problems. The two sectors both seek more revenue and are competing for enrollment. Each student brings dollars from the state.

One potential area of collaboration would be a shared website for enrolling students in all local public schools. The school district is working on one, but charters aren’t currently slated to be included — and not all charter leaders would want to be.

How L.A.'s school board election became the most expensive in U.S. history »

A change in tone, a ‘fairer’ shot

Nina Rees, who leads the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C., was more blunt than most in celebrating the charter win. “The L.A. win was fantastic in that we got two of the seats,” Rees said. “The incumbents made [Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos and [President] Trump an issue. Reformers ... were able to distance themselves from what’s happening nationally and still win.”

We now have some lessons out of L.A. that we can take to other places that have similar battles and replicate them.

— Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Charter leaders and advocates in L.A. say they hope the wins diminish what they perceive as the anti-charter tone and behavior of many district officials.

“There’s been a politicization around charter schools that is a distraction,” said Sarah Angel, the L.A. managing regional director for the California Charter Schools Assn. “The school board spends a disproportionate amount of time on the renewal of high-quality charter schools,” she said of the district’s oversight role, “and not enough time on trying to increase academic achievement for all kids.”

She and others also criticized a recent school board vote to endorse a bill that would limit the growth of charter schools.

The leaders of Alliance-College Ready Public Schools, the city’s largest charter school network, have accused the district of making demands as part of the oversight process that amount to bureaucratic harassment.

“They were not things that seemed to matter to the district before and, out of the blue, they seemed to be important — and the bar kept moving,” said Zainab Ali, Alliance’s chief of staff.

Ali said she hopes the election results will help change what she described as an “us versus them mentality.”

According to her own tally, she said, the district's approval of charter school applications — for new schools and the expansion of existing ones — has declined from 90% in the 2013-14 school year to 79% in 2016-17.

Rees, from a distance, sees the board’s actions similarly. “In the past, the board has been reluctant to grant charters,” she said. “Now that there’s a majority, they might approve more.”

More space, more transparency and less animosity on shared campuses

A California law that requires school districts to rent classroom space to charters often forces traditional public schools and charters to coexist in tight quarters. In some cases, these arrangements cause tension: The schools have different bell schedules, and they vie for rehearsal time in the auditorium or practice sessions on basketball courts. Often, too, students in different age groups end up sharing the same campus.

Some charter backers contend that the teachers union’s political fight with charters has increased the drama. “Charter schools are public schools. Their students have the right to be educated on a public school campus,” Angel said. “UTLA [United Teachers Los Angeles] has fanned the flames of division as it relates to all public school students being able to share public school campuses.”

As for the decision process about such space, she said, “It is totally opaque. We have no idea how they make these decisions.”

Riordan went further: “Every time charter schools want some property, the public schools find some ridiculous reason why the property isn’t available, like they’re going to learn ballet in that space or something,” he said.

Litigation over the use of space has gone to trial before, with mixed results, and could be headed to another round in court, said Ricardo Soto, general counsel for the California Charter Schools Assn.

The district “provides insufficient information to the schools that request facilities,” and too few classrooms, Soto said. “School districts have an affirmative duty to offer classrooms even if they’re using every class that they have in their inventory.”

As the case proceeds, though, an effort is underway to try to address the problem out of court. Cristina de Jesus, the president and chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools, a nonprofit that operates charters in the L.A. area, co-chairs a group of nearly 20 charter leaders who have been meeting with district staff.

A charter and a traditional program should be able to “live together” on the same campus and even collaborate, De Jesus said. “Situations are tense because it feels like someone is taking things away from one school and giving it to another.”

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Editor's note: The Times' education coverage is supplemented by grants from a number of foundations, including the Broad Foundation. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.

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