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LAUSD board to play more direct role in setting rules for charter schools — and charter leaders are thrilled

Members of a working group of Los Angeles Unified School District officials and charter school leaders stands before the district's school board on Tues., April 3, 2018.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
Members of a working group of Los Angeles Unified School District officials and charter school leaders stands before the district's school board on Tues., April 3, 2018.

Five months ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District was locked in a "game of chicken" with the leaders of almost two-dozen L.A. charter schools — a showdown that appeared headed for a crash.

The showdown was over the "district-required language," a template that every charter school needing the school board's permission to open or to stay open in L.A. Unified had to fill out. If the dispute sounds wonky and bureaucratic, that's because it was — but the leaders of 20 schools felt so strongly about it that they were willing to put their charters' futures on the line.

As it was, staff in the L.A. Unified Charter Schools Division could change the boilerplate of the "district-required language" whenever and however they wanted. Essentially, district staff could unilaterally decide which school district rules they wanted charter schools — which are publicly-funded schools run by outside groups — to follow.

So in November, the leaders of about two-dozen of these schools refused to follow the "district-required language," essentially daring the district to deny their schools' charter petitions unless something changed. District officials weren't budging, fearing the changes would free the charter schools from too much oversight.

But the two sides stayed at the negotiating table, even into the hours before a critical school board meeting. They struck a last-minute deal to avoid the messy charter revocations. And then, for months afterward, the two sides kept talking — the leaders of 13 charter schools, district officials and representatives of the California Charter Schools Association.

Fast-forward to Tuesday: L.A. Unified school board members voted 6-0 to formalize and add a few finishing touches to the deal — a moment that charter leaders and district officials said represented a significant thaw in a sometimes-icy relationship between the two camps.

“Instead of escalating conflict, we have found ways to de-escalate," said interim L.A. Unified superintendent Vivian Ekchian.

Tuesday's vote changed who gets control over the boilerplate language in charter schools' petitions. Instead of district staff, members of the L.A. Unified school board will now vote annually to approve a uniform "district-required language" document that every charter will have to follow.

Board members also approved a specific list of policies to which charters would be subject, and will also vote annually on whether to update that list.

"What we’re going to have is an authorizing environment where the rules are clear," said Emilio Pack, who runs STEM Prep charter schools and also participated in the task force.

"It makes it a lot easier for the [Charter Schools Division] to enforce those policies and it becomes much more easy to follow when you actually know what the applicable policies are," Pack said. "Transparency, clarity — those things then turn into more time and effort towards educating kids."

The board also made plans to keep convening formal conversations between district staff and the advisory group, currently comprised of representatives of independent charter schools large and small.

But George McKenna, the only board member to withhold his support from the deal, wondered why principals from L.A. Unified schools — who are often asked to share space on their campuses with charter schools — were not included in the advisory group.

"The concern I have here is for transparency," McKenna said. "I have seen the unwillingness, through legislation proposed in Sacramento, of the charter school community" to commit to transparency.

Board member Scott Schmerelson also expressed concerns, but ultimately voted "yes" on the new arrangement, basing his tentative support on Ekchian's recommendation.

To Donald Cohen, the founder of In The Public Interest, a think tank that has called for more stringent regulation of charter schools, any arrangement that transfers control of some charter oversight functions from district staff to the L.A. Unified board is troubling.

Cohen noted charter school lobbying groups spent heavily to elect four of the seven board members.

"There is a place for [the board] to be involved in policy-setting, but it does politicize the process," said Cohen, "and it does allow charters to have a lot more influence" over setting the rules.

But in an interview, Pack said there is an upside to giving the board control over the "district-required language" and the rules charters must follow: "What it allows to happen is a transparent conversation about what those changes are."

Though charter groups and district officials are still divided on issues as equally-vexing as the "district-required language" debate seemed in November, members of the two camps were able to present a united front on Tuesday.

Speaking to board members about the particulars of the compromise, Pack and other charter leaders stood side by side with district officials, including L.A. Unified's Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson.

Pack said the involvement of Gipson, who led working group meetings, was critical.

"Dr. Gipson did such an outstanding job," Pack told the board. "That wasn't in the script," joked Gipson.