School Choice & Charters

L.A. District Considers Moratorium on Charters

By Sean Cavanagh — September 11, 2012 3 min read
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The Los Angeles Unified School Board will consider taking the highly unusual step of postponing consideration of new charter schools until district officials conduct a far-reaching analysis of those schools’ operations, including their disciplinary policies, need for building space, and performance serving special-needs students.

A resolution introduced by board member Steve Zimmer, which is scheduled to receive a hearing by the panel today, expresses concerns that even as charters continue to grow in the district, they are releasing relatively little data about their performance or the populations they serve.

“Charter schools were originally conceived to be an incubator for innovation to share successful ideas and practices with other schools,” the resolution states, “yet the Los Angeles Unified School District does not currently have any formal infrastructure to evaluate and share best practices with those schools.”

Charter schools serve about 110,000 students in the district today, representing 14.5 percent of the system’s total enrollment, according to board documents. Zimmer’s resolution would direct Los Angeles schools superintendent John E. Deasy to “issue a comprehensive report to the Board about the benefits, challenges and responsibilities of being the largest charter authorizer in the world.”

Zimmer’s resolution points out that 20,893 students with moderate-to-severe disabilities are served by traditional public schools in the 640,000-student district. Charters serve only 933 students with those needs, he notes. If charters were serving a percentage of students in that category on par with non-charters, the number would be much higher—2,816, his resolution states.

The Los Angeles board member is focusing on a source of criticism that has been continually directed at charter schools over the years: that they serve populations of students who have fewer educational challenges than those who attend regular public schools. A report released this year by the Government Accountability Office found that charter schools across the country enroll a smaller percentage of students with disabilities than regular public schools, though that analysis was less clear on the reasons behind that disparity. Charter schools are required to adhere to a number of federal requirements for serving students with disabilities, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Los Angeles district officials have raised specific concerns about charters lacking either the capacity or the willingness to serve families whose children have special needs. (See my colleague Nirvi Shah’s post from last year on the district’s complaints about the issue.)

It appears that the charter school forces are mounting a campaign to defeat Zimmer’s plan. One such group is the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, a charter schools network, which is attempting to rally opposition to the resolution, which it says would undermine charters.

If the resolution is approved, “great charter operators like Alliance will not be allowed to open new schools and offer more students the high-quality education they so rightly deserve,” the message states. “This is a very serious challenge to one of the most successful school reform efforts of the past 20 years.

I’ll have more information on the Los Angeles board’s actions as they play out.

[UPDATE (Sept. 12): The California Charter Schools Association strongly objects to the board’s proposal, said the organization’s president, Jed Wallace.

“We see it as a fairly straightforward anti-charter resolution,” said Wallace, who described the reporting requirements put forward by Zimmer as unrealistic and “overbearing.”

Wallace in particular questioned the wisdom of requiring charter schools to adhere to a single data system, saying many of those schools have developed their own, superior technological methods for collecting data on students, school performance, and other information. Requiring charters to adhere to a single model “can become a straightjacket that harms innovation and creativity,” Wallace said in an interview.

The CCSA outlined a number of legal and philosophical objections to the resolution in a letter to the school board’s general counsel. The panel is expected to take up the issue again next month.]

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.