School & District Management Opinion

L.A. Charters Miss Enrollment Targets by 14,600. So What?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — February 23, 2016 7 min read
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Detail from Los Angeles Unified School District charter school map showing the central area of Los Angeles. LAUSD has 274 charters, more than any district in the country. (Map Source: LAUSD)

In the midst of another skirmish in the L.A. Charter School War, new data obtained from the Los Angeles Unified School District show charter school enrollment is 14,620 lower than the charter operators projected in their petitions to operate those schools.

But the implications of the shortfall are far from clear. The district tends to see weakness in the viability of charters. Charter operators think they are being picked on when they seek new schools or renewals of old ones. Jed Wallace, executive director of the California Charter Schools Association likened the current charter exam process to a “witch hunt.”

Less Than 20 Percent of Projections

Back to the numbers: In the most extreme cases enrollments are less than 20 percent of those projected raising questions among district regulators about the financial and educational viability of those schools.

At the Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy #21 in Sun Valley, the school reported 49 students in the fall of 2015 instead of the 300 it had projected in its charter application.

And at Apple Academy Charter School on Western Avenue, the school reported 326 students in 2015 compared with 1,420 in its charter petition, the largest numerical shortfall among the fiscally independent charters. Granada Hills Charter High School enrolled 4,467 compared to its charter petition projection of 5,500.

There are 25 charters with fewer than half the students projected in their charter petitions, and the shortfalls are raising flags in the LAUSD Charter School Division. (The spreadsheet is reproduced at the end of this post.) Jose Cole-Gutierrez, the division’s head, said in an interview that the district’s experience with 274 charters, the most of any school district in the country, drives it to ask different questions than it did a decade ago. “Questions of school enrollment have always been important because of viability. That’s nothing new. We have always asked schools to substantiate their plans. But now, schools are telling us that there are a lot of factors that they are dealing with given increased competition.”

No One Said ‘Get Tough’

He vigorously denied allegations that the school board had sought a tough-on-charters approach, a declaration repeated at the school board’s meeting.

Charter operators see the situation differently. At Alliance #21, principal Jonathan Tiongco notes that the school has just opened, and is still scrambling for a facility. They are building a permanent facility, but in the meantime they’ve been bouncing between temporary locations. “Parents are a little cautious with the uncertainty,” he said. “For a while, I had nothing to sell but dirt.” But Tiongco, who brings an impressive background in education technology to his job, says that the school will be on track to meet its enrollment targets in a year or so.

Caprice Young, the president of Magnolia Charter Schools, doesn’t see fiscal doom in the under-enrollment. “That’s always the case,” she said. “Enthusiastic school founders overestimate how fast they can start up. They catch up after a few years.” Magnolia operates 11 charter schools, 8 within LAUSD. The district’s charter schools division raised questions about two proposals for new schools, and they were pulled from the school board agenda rather than face a negative vote.

Several Magnolia schools are among the severely under-enrolled list. “But for good reason,” she said. Magnolia Science Academy #5, whose student count was 35% of the number projected, was moved 18 miles away from its original site and essentially restarted. Magnolia Science Academy #6 is genuinely lagging behind expectations, she said, “and we’ve been able to manage the budget so that they are sustainable.”

Charter Operators Cry Foul

Young and other charter school operators have cried foul, charging that the charter school division has changed rules midstream and is over-regulating the independently operated schools. Twenty-one charter operators, whose schools enroll more than 50,000 students complained in a letter to the LAUSD board that charters were being denied more frequently.

I don’t know whether the LAUSD is being fair or unfair to the charters. Like all businesses, charters love government subsidies but not government regulation. The relevant question is how the district should manage the growing charter enrollment, or, more to the point, how it should manage district schools facing competition from the charter sector?

I do know that what’s happening now isn’t working. Every charter petition becomes an occasion for a mini-trial before the school board. Supporters pack the school board meeting in what Los Angeles Times reporter Howard Blume called a “regular and lengthy ritual.”

30,000 More Charter Students

Even if no more charter schools were allowed to start, already authorized charters would allow 30,000 students to leave district schools and enroll in charters. In a time when there are fewer students overall in Los Angeles, a shift of this magnitude poses a significant threat to the district’s finances, about $270-million by my back of the envelope approximation.

That’s even before the fund-raising and school opening efforts of Great Public Schools Now kicks in.

That translates into a lot of adult jobs, so it’s no big surprise that United Teachers Los Angeles and other employee unions are raising dues money to strongly oppose charter expansion.

It’s also clear that there is increasing demand for charters, magnets, and other schools of choice. Projections issued by the CCSA show 41,830 students on charter school waiting lists. CCSA sent me the list along with their methodology that heavily discounts the numbers in areas where there are multiple charters in the same geographic area, thus attempting to correct the count for families that applied to multiple charters.

I do not have a unified count of waiting lists for magnet schools within the district, but approximations for the most popular schools put the waiting list at over 1,000. And LAUSD runs a complex application program with detailed instructions, weighted admissions, and even tutorials in how to apply.

Two New Realities about Choice Schools

The juxtaposition of low enrollments and high demand illustrates two realities about trying to oversee charters and other schools of choice in Los Angeles.

First, a charter is not really a contract, in the conventional sense. Unlike a vendor who gets a contract from the district to provide special education services, copy paper, or corn dogs, charter operators are not actually responsible for producing schooling for a specified number of students.

Charters are more like drilling rights to an oil field. If a charter operator thinks it can advantageously educate additional children, it can within the limits of its charter, but it is under no apparent obligation to fill to projections.

Second, the public likes choice, but it also likes a good school in their neighborhood where their children have a guaranteed place. Running both at the same time is a daunting problem for LAUSD.

Public schools have managed systems of neighborhood schools with attendance zones for more than a century, sometimes well, sometimes in ways that further race and class discrimination. School systems have run small, selective school choice systems for a long time while maintaining a traditional attendance zone system. Bronx High School of Science was founded nearly 80 years ago and many big city systems maintain selective schools. Boston Latin, the nation’s first high school, accepted its first student in 1635.

Some school systems, such as New Orleans, have learned how to manage an all-choice system, creating combined application and fair competition systems among competing schools. The craft knowledge about running an all-choice system is worth understanding for those who think about how to apply the lessons of NOLA to L.A.

Coexist? But How?

But the LAUSD board and the charter schools division inside the district face a problem of a much larger magnitude: how to get neighborhood schools to prosper and grow academically as they co-exist and compete with the growing number of charters, magnets, and other schools of choice.

I’ve asked a lot people—academics, researchers, policy wonks, school leaders—whether they have a solution to this problem that does not treat the school district as the educator of last resort. I’ve yet to hear a convincing answer.

Spreadsheet of Fiscally Independent Charter School Enrollment, Los Angeles Unified School District

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