Education Funding

Charter Expansion Plan Stokes Debate in L.A.

By Arianna Prothero — October 06, 2015 6 min read
The United Teachers Los Angeles union staged a protest on the opening day of The Broad, Los Angeles’ new contemporary-art museum built by philanthropist Eli Broad. They were protesting a draft plan from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to more than double the number of charter schools in Los Angeles.
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In the weeks since plans by an influential donor to massively expand charter schools in Los Angeles were leaked, major questions about the viability of the proposal have emerged.

Even with an arsenal of money, the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and other charter school advocates will have to get support from the local school board, and perhaps the state, to authorize and open new charters. And then there are practical questions around facilities, staffing, and school quality that would come with growing Los Angeles’ charter school population to include nearly half the city’s 645,000 public school students in less than a decade.

Despite those obstacles, school district advocates maintain the stakes are high, and the outcome could produce ripple effects across the country.

“It’s not even a plan that uses competition as this lever for profound change; it really is a takeover strategy,” said Los Angeles school board President Steve Zimmer. “This is the last and largest major centralized urban public school system governed by a democratically elected school board [in the country]. … If you can bring down this democratically elected school board, you can say you don’t need them anywhere in the country.”

The draft proposal, which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times, details a $490 million plan to double the number of charter schools and students by establishing 260 new schools with the capacity to enroll an additional 130,000 students, over the next eight years. If the plan is fully realized, Los Angeles will be among the ranks of a small number of cities, such as New Orleans, Detroit, and the District of Columbia, where nearly half or more of the student population attend charters.

Although that plan is ambitious, leaders at both the California Charter Schools Association and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools say those numbers are achievable based on previous charter growth in the district. The number of students enrolled in charters has grown by 80,000, to 139,000, between school years 2008-09 and 2013-14, according to the alliance.

Large Imprint

The Broad Foundation is hardly new to the education field.

It has long been a high-profile funder in the education world both within Los Angeles and nationally.

“They’ve been big supporters of data-driven decision making and creating better leaders for schools [through] the Broad Academy, which is a venue to bring people from nontraditional fields and place them in urban school systems,” said Nina Rees, the head of the national alliance, a prominent nonprofit charter-advocacy group and itself a recipient of Broad funding.

“The focus on charter schools is newer to the Broad Foundation.”

(The Broad Foundation has helped support Education Week‘s coverage of personalized learning and system leadership.)

But the foundation is perhaps best known for its annual prizes recognizing both charter school networks and traditional school districts in urban areas that are closing achievement gaps between minority and low-income students and their higher-income peers.

The goal of Broad’s latest plan, as stated in the draft proposal, is to improve public schooling in Los Angeles and make it a model for the nation.

It lists dozens of other potential funders, including several heavyweight school choice funders such as the Walton and Gates foundations, both of which also have underwritten news coverage in Education Week.

But raising money is only the tip of the iceberg. Beyond issues outlined in the draft proposal around scaling up, such as finding facilities and recruiting teachers and school leaders, it will need political and community support.

And you can’t have community support in Los Angeles without having the support of Latinos; 74 percent of public school students in the city are Latino.

“The goal of the plan is to serve only 50 percent of the existing student population. … It doesn’t address how we improve schools for all students in our communities,” said Maria Brenes, the executive director of InnerCity Struggle, a community organization based in the city’s largest Latino neighborhood.

But she also has reservations about traditional schools within the Los Angeles Unified district, too, pointing to significant gaps in academic achievement and graduation rates between Latino and black students and their white and Asian peers.

“We would love to send our children to our neighborhood school, but it’s not always a guarantee that our child will have the best opportunities,” said Brenes. “So if a neighborhood school is not doing well, and it’s understood that high expectations are not the norm, in that context, quality charter schools are competitive for families as an option.”

In addition, the district has struggled organizationally, with turnover in its leadership ranks and a botched rollout of a pricey initiative to give every student an iPad.

Local Support

But ultimately, charter schools will need support from the Los Angeles school board to get approved. Under California charter law, school districts are the primary authorizers, although rejected school proposals can be appealed to the county and then the state.

Even after years of investing heavily in local school board elections, the Broads have been unable to substantially alter the balance of pro- and anti-charter members on the board.

“You can imagine that there will be even more money put into the next school board campaign,” said board President Zimmer, who is up for re-election in 2017 and has vowed to fight the plan.

The draft proposal is also facing opposition from the teachers’ union, which was already protesting the plan when it was still only rumored last month.

But remaining are a host of other practical issues such as finding enough building space—a perennial problem for charters and the subject of voter referendums and court cases—and well-qualified teachers and school leaders, among other considerations.

“I would say anything is possible, but to do something well, ... the plan is moving very fast for that to happen in a thoughtful way,” said Patricia Burch, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s school of education. She’s particularly concerned that students in special education or English-language learners will get left behind. “Charter schools have struggled to serve these very vulnerable populations, and so if they’ve struggled to do that, why in the heck would we want to scale up fast? ... These are just the risks as we try to bring the best aspects of this idea to scale.”

It’s also unclear how serious the Broad Foundation is.

In a statement, the foundation called the leaked memo a “preliminary discussion draft” and said only that “the foundation has begun working with others to explore ways to dramatically increase the number of high-quality public schools available to families.” The foundation would not comment directly for this story.

But if the Broad Foundation pulls it off, several advocates agree with its statement that the city could become a national model for charter school expansion.

Among them is Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, a sizable charter-management organization based in California. It’s known both for the academic gains it makes with minority children in poverty and for having a unionized staff—a rarity in the charter sector.

“If you can pull off reversing achievement gaps up to the college level at that dramatic pace in a city this big, with this many challenges, that becomes a model,” said Barr, who serves as the chairman for the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform. “If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Charter-Expansion Plan Stokes Debate in L.A.

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