Commentary

The Los Angeles Charter School Expansion Plan and Status Quo Politics

Education has been at the center of political debate for Los Angeles after the Los Angeles Times obtained a confidential draft of the Great Public Schools Now Initiative. The 44-page memo reveals the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s $490-million plan to place half the students in Los Angeles Unified School District into charter schools over an eight-year period.

Since 2004, the Broad Foundation has invested more than $75 million in public charter operators and charter-support organizations in Los Angeles. In addition to the substantial commitment the Broad Foundation has made toward the Great Public Schools Now effort, the memo cites the Walton Family Foundation also committed to making Los Angeles a “target city” for their philanthropic efforts. Organizers of the charter expansion effort declined to publicly release details of the plan.

The draft revealed that nearly 15 percent of LAUSD traditional public school students attend schools that are in some of the lowest-ranked public schools statewide. However, only six percent of charter students in Los Angeles attend schools that are similarly underperforming. Unlike LAUSD, several of these low-performing charters will likely be targeted for closure.

In order to provide an alternative to traditional public school education in Los Angeles, Great Public Schools Now will accelerate charter schools’ existing growth plans to meet enrollment projections. Los Angeles Unified already has about 16 percent of their students in charters and there is a growing need for more based off current waitlists. According to the draft plan, 41,830 students are on waitlists for charter schools within LAUSD. This number is relatively high compared to the 10,000 students across the 16 school districts in the Bay Area and the 5,000 in San Diego Unified School District.

The possible plan covers a variety of factors from educational training to political promotion. Over an eight-year period from 2016-2023, it would create 260 high-quality charters, 130,000 high-quality charter seats, and reach a 50 percent charter market share with surrounding schools. The investment plan includes strategic allocations to ensure high-quality charters, develop facility solutions, recruit and train school staff, support policy advocacy, and fund management.

The Great Public Schools Now draft set aside $43.1 million for a “teacher pipeline” and supported allocating more philanthropic funds to Teach for America-Los Angeles. Teach for America recruits individuals to teach for two years in low-income communities. The confidential plan also addressed long-term difficulties in principal training resources by recommending to outsource to one or more proven providers, which would allow charter schools to use capital “for other purposes and capitalize on economies of scale.”

Understandably, some of the most notable critics to the plan include United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) leaders concerned about political influence. According to the Los Angeles Times, the union leaders said that they “believe the charter expansion also is designed to dilute its political strength by reducing the number of dues-paying members.” Charter schools are associated with nonunionized teachers, which means the plan could negatively affect UTLA membership. UTLA also does not back the types of changes and accountability Broad and others support. The union and its allies have a recent costly history of supporting candidates in school board elections to compete with Broad and his allies.

Critics have also raised awareness about the importance of committed high-quality charter operators. The plan stated it is imperative that this funding will produce growth and maintain improvement over time. It recommends funding directed to new charters in their “start-up” years, but also investments for the entire Los Angeles charter market in the long-term. These broader investments may contribute to advocacy, market mapping tools, and universal enrollment processes.

Charter expansion supporters see this plan as a chance to positively impact the education arena, as long as appropriate oversight and accountability are present. This may include state laws requiring charters to keep doors open to all students and well-planned actions by charter operators. They admire the boldness of the plan that wants to resolve the dissatisfaction families face across Los Angeles with their current education system.

More political battles will ensue as the development of this charter expansion unfolds. Opponents to this education reform ignore the disappointment in traditional schools that has taken place in LAUSD. Los Angeles charter schools’ proven success in college-readiness and increasing projected enrollment numbers display a new direction the city is already heading. Advocating for this expansion with appropriate accountability for charters can help provide high-quality educational alternatives for students enrolled in low-performing traditional schools. This is a sizeable charter expansion, with aggressive plans to be implemented in a short amount of time, but it could be the opportunity for education reform leaders to set a positive school choice example with the nation’s second largest district.