LAUSD Is Tormenting Its High-Performing Charter Schools to Death

LAUSD school busEDUCATION POLITICS – The Los Angeles Unified School District and some of the nation’s highest-performing charter schools are engaged in what one report has called a “game of chicken” – with the fate of 14 of these schools and their nearly 4,600 students hanging the balance. But that suggests this is about two parties engaged in dangerous brinksmanship. In fact, it is about charter schools finally standing up to teachers union’s bullying.

Charters are publicly funded schools that offer students an alternative to the local public school monopoly. They have been a particular boon to low-income and special-needs students who are stuck in ill-performing districts. Major school systems, such as LAUSD, and their unions often are hostile to these thriving education alternatives, yet they hold the charters’ fates in their hands – and they use their power to hobble them.

In LA, district staff are requiring the charters to accept 39 pages of newly updated “district-approved language” – regulations that affect nearly every aspect of the schools’ operation. One provision the charters find particularly troublesome is a requirement that allows LAUSD to change the rules any time for any reason.

The stepped-up requirements aren’t that different from what the charter schools have put up with before, but the movement is more united than in the past and has finally had enough. A more favorable political climate has strengthened its resolve. Bottom line: the rules require the charters to comply with increasing portions of the education code, this making them more like public-school appendages than independent entities that can innovate and chart their own path.

The rules increasingly put the charters under the thumb of a frequently hostile school bureaucracy. Just like traditional public schools, they are being forced to focus more time and resources on filling out paperwork and complying with regulatory audits and paperwork requirements. It makes them less able to innovate and focus on the students.

The charters can accept the edicts, or else – the “else” being a denial of the schools’ renewal petition or a refusal by the district to grant petitions that would let new schools begin their operation. The fair-minded LA School Report explains, “An unprecedented number of charter school petitions could be denied (this Tuesday) because Los Angeles charter leaders are standing up against district policies they say require increasing amounts of time and money to satisfy and take away resources from the classroom.”

The head of the leftist, anti-charter “In The Public Interest” offers the full anti-charter spin in the Huffington Post, noting, “A number of Los Angeles charter schools up for renewal this week are throwing a tantrum if they don’t get their way” and “have refused to comply” with LAUSD’s charter policies. Well, it’s hardly a tantrum to contest ham-fisted government rules that are designed to destroy the essence of what they are.

“It’s quite ironic,” said Michael MeCey, director of the Sacramento-based California Parents for Public Virtual Education, which represents online charter families. “For years these districts have told successful charter schools: Either conform to our draconian rules which have created student failure factories or lose your charter.” Such a choice.

So, good for the schools for fighting back, given that conforming to these open-ended rules threatens the very things that make these charters successful. The battle is about their independence, freedom from bureaucracy, ability to experiment, and hold their teachers accountable rather than be subject to the union work rules that coddle poor-performing educators.

The battle has drawn widespread media coverage for local political reasons. The charter-school movement helped elect its first majority of school-board members. So the dispute will highlight whether the new supposedly pro-charter board majority will support these charters in this existential battle. The question is in doubt given that the board last month sided unanimously with the district staff by turning down a high-performing Hebrew-language charter that wouldn’t accept the district’s required language, according to the LA School Report article.

But all is not lost for the charters even if the board votes to deny all the petitions. In fact, a rejection – however unsettling that would be for these local schools – could be good news for them and the state’s charter-school movement by setting a precedent whereby charters could more easily bypass recalcitrant school districts. State law allows charters to appeal their rejection to the county or the state boards of education – both of which are more friendly to charters, and more likely to closely follow California’s generally pro-charter statutes.

This dispute explains why teachers’ unions tried to pass Senate Bill 808 in the last session. Deemed the “charter killer,” the measure would have, in part, prevented “charters who are rejected by their districts from appealing to the county or state,” according to a California Charter Schools Association explanation. The measure would have made the LAUSD board the final arbiter in the current dispute. Fortunately, it died in committee and might not have gotten a signature even if it passed. Gov. Jerry Brown has been supportive of charter schools.

“We are high-performing public schools serving nearly 20,000 students who are mostly students of color in communities with limited access to free, high-quality education options like the ones our schools provide,” declared leaders of LA charter schools in a Nov. 1 media statement. They noted that some of their schools “have been recognized as among the best in the nation” by the U.S. and California departments of education and US News & World Report.

Critics of public schools often note that they put bureaucratic concerns above the education of children. That’s exactly what we’re seeing here, isn’t it? The LAUSD staff has recommended shutting down these schools – not because of any educational problems, but because the charter-school operators are chafing at a set of heavy-handed and bureaucratic rules.

Seriously, who would accept a set of rules that gives one side the freedom to change the rules at any time? “It would be irresponsible for me to include language in our school charter that would include policies that the district hasn’t even invented yet,” said Emilio Pack, CEO of the Stem Preparatory Schools, which are involved in the LAUSD dispute.

While some of the district-approved language requirements are reasonable and not the source of any contention, others go too far. The rules allow for endless investigations, sap time and energy from the classroom and leave the kids and teachers with constant anxiety, as they worry about whether they will have a school to attend the next semester.

Charters thrive because they are freed from the edict-driven, bureaucratic and union-controlled model. Expecting them to thrive while being under the thumb of LAUSD’s sprawling bureaucracy is like expecting an innovative tech firm to succeed while being controlled by the NSA. It’s not a game of chicken, but a game of control. It’s time for such nonsense to end.

Steven Greenhut is contributing editor for the California Policy Center where this perspective originated. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.