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Pro-charter funder makes good on promise to give money to LAUSD

Teacher Cherie Wood reads a book to her kindergarten students at Willard Elementary School in Pasadena, two weeks into the school year, on Wednesday morning, Aug. 31, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
FILE - A kindergarten teacher reads a book to her students in Pasadena.

A philanthropic group funded by some of California's biggest charter school supporters will soon spread some of its money to successful non-charter schools as well, starting with up to $3.85 million in grants to five Los Angeles Unified School District campuses in late 2017.

Great Public Schools Now announced Thursday a grant competition open to L.A. Unified schools in 10 target neighborhoods. The contest is designed to help the school district "do more of what works" by funding the expansion of five schools or programs with already strong test scores, according to the request for proposals.

To charter school opponents, the grants might come as a surprise. Last November, a leaked "Great Public Schools Now Plan" from the Broad Foundation outlined an aggressive challenge to L.A. Unified through an expansion of charter schools. But Great Public Schools Now does not support only charter schools, says Executive Director Myrna Castrejón.

"This is a really important turning point in the conversation around how GPSN can really begin to deliver on its mission," Castrejón told KPCC.

Great Public Schools Now will award $20,000 planning grants to up to five schools later this fall, according to an outline of the grant competition unveiled Thursday.

Then early next year, "an advisory committee consisting of education experts within and outside of L.A. Unified" will review awards applications. In April 2017, Great Public Schools Now's board will select the five winners, with each receiving between $60,000 and $750,000 spread over three years.

Great Public Schools Now's press release announcing the competition included a statement from L.A. Unified superintendent Michelle King, who said she was "excited" about the grant.

“We have schools in every corner of the district where students are excelling," King said. "Investing in these campuses will allow more of our students to attain the knowledge and skills to be successful in college, careers and in life."

In June, Great Public Schools Now announced its first round of grants — totaling $4.5 million — to the Equitas charter school, the local chapter of Teach for America and the afterschool program Heart of L.A. But at the time, the organization's leaders expressed hopes they could soon give a direct gift to the school district as well.

The grant competition announced Thursday is open to L.A. Unified schools of any kind — traditional, magnet or pilot schools — in one of Great Public Schools Now's 10 target neighborhoods in South and East L.A. or the east San Fernando Valley. To apply, 50 percent of a school's students would have to score as "proficient" on the latest round of state English or math tests.

Using those parameters, around 120 L.A. Unified schools would be eligible to apply for a grant. But there are other criteria: Schools with lower test scores can still apply if they're significantly outscoring other charter and district-run schools. The competition details specify Great Public Schools Now "will only fund programs that … enroll [special education] and [English Learner] students at rates" comparable to district averages.

The competition details say Great Public Schools Now is "agnostic" about how the school is run or whether the campus is bound by a labor agreement. They also say the group "will fund schools where leaders will have the autonomy to select or retain their teaching staffs."

Among the possible programs that might get funding: Maybe "a successful magnet wants to expand from serving 500 students to 1000 students," the request for proposals says, or perhaps "a successful magnet in one area of town wants to open a second magnet in a different part of town."

"We certainly are excited," said Castrejón, "that in this next phase of our work and planning, we’ve taken the time to work very closely with LAUSD and Superintendent King to develop some parameters around our theory of replication and funding; to really accelerate access for high quality public schools regardless of governance.

"To be sure," she added, "this initiative is very different. LAUSD has never tried anything like this before."

Applications for the initial planning grants are due on Oct. 28. Final applications will be due in mid-February.