The controversial Eli Broad-backed initiative that was designed to double charter-school attendance in the Los Angeles Unified School District has been shape-shifting ever since an early draft was leaked months ago. The goal of enrolling half of the district's students in charter schools within eight years has been dropped. Now, those involved in the planning say, no specific enrollment goal will be included in the eventual plan. Seed money would be disbursed not just to open more charter schools, as originally intended, but to help fund new high-performing district schools of all types — including magnets, pilot schools and neighborhood schools — using successful existing schools as models.
If that's how things actually work out, it would be a real improvement on the original concept. There are all kinds of excellent schools in L.A. Unified — just not enough of them, especially in neighborhoods where low-income students live. Instead of perpetuating the war between charters and "traditional" district public schools, and creating sharp division and bad feeling throughout the district, a more encompassing effort to open and support good schools of all sorts would offer parents a true choice.
Here's another change in the plan: Although it is still well-funded, it apparently won't be quite the half-a-billion-dollar effort originally envisioned. Donations haven't been coming in at that level. Though fundraising will continue, the numbers being talked about now are more like two-thirds that amount.
That could be part of the reason for the avowed change of mission. The original draft was widely criticized after The Times reported on it, and the backlash didn't come solely from the teachers unions and other typical charter-school opponents. Community leaders also were unhappy about deal developed in private that could potentially harm traditional district schools. They worried that the district would be unable to absorb the financial losses from the creation of that many charter schools, as state education funding followed students to their new schools. The new, softer approach came partly in response to the widespread criticism — but it also might make fundraising easier by creating a more politically palatable school-improvement plan.
The realities involved in staffing so many charter schools also played a part. The state is already struggling with shortages of teachers and principals; even charter-school supporters fretted that the initiative might collapse under its own weight in the rush to find enough educators to staff 260 new schools. That's especially true given that teacher turnover tends to be high at charter schools.
The original critics of the plan — the teachers union and its supporters — remain suspicious. They worry that the nonprofit Great Public Schools Now, created to carry out the initiative, will still attempt to flood the district with new charter schools. The non-profit's own leaders say that most of the money raised would still go still into creating charters — which are more expensive to create because they often need to pay for their own campuses — but that they are sincere about providing seed money for large numbers of traditional district schools as well.
The L.A. Unified school board voted Tuesday on a resolution opposing the Broad plan, though its language was vague and the initiative itself was not specifically mentioned. But that won't help the situation, and besides, there's little the board can do, under current state law, to prevent a barrage of new charter schools. State law governs charter-school approval; the board can reject charter applications only on certain, narrow grounds, and their effect on public-school financing isn't among those reasons. What the resolution might accomplish is to continue making this a politically divisive issue. Potential donors might then decline to join the effort, but would that really be helpful to students?
A better move would be to call on Great Public Schools Now to provide a place at the table for the district's new superintendent, Michelle King, to participate in the planning process. If the new nonprofit organization hopes to overcome resistance in the community, it needs to be more open about its planning and it needs to open the process to public discussion — after all, whether charter schools or not, these are all public schools.
The new plan, if it moves forward, should include funding for for outside auditors to measure its progress and to make sure it is succeeding. The plan should also be dedicated to leveling the playing field by ensuring that new charter schools encourage enrollment of special-education students and foster children and students who might not otherwise know about or apply to charters. And it should focus on finding ways to prevent rapid teacher turnover. At its best, the initiative would not be about pitting charters against district schools, but rather about expanding the number of first-rate schools for the district's most disadvantaged students.
The Times receives funding for its digital initiative, Education Matters, from the California Endowment, the Wasserman Foundation and the Baxter Family Foundation. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Broad Foundation to support this effort. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.