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Billionaire’s proposal for 130,000 LA charter school seats draws fire

Students paint signs with the names and logos of colleges that former classmates now attend. Environmental Charter High School requires that each of its students get accepted into a traditional four-year college or university in order to graduate.
Jed Kim/KPCC
FILE: A plan proposed by philanthropist Eli Broad calls for development of 260 new charter schools to provide an alternative to low-performing schools operated by Los Angeles Unified.

Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad's proposal to double the number of charter schools threatens the financial stability of the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to LAUSD's board president.

For the last several months, Broad's foundation has been seeking reaction to a 44-page draft plan (see below) that calls for 130,000 additional charter school seats over eight years.

Broad has backed educational initiatives before, but his foundation's latest proposal is its most ambitious to date covering Los Angeles schools. 

The proposal could potentially draw tens of thousands of students from LAUSD schools, which serve more than 600,000 students and employ about 30,000 teachers.

When students leave school district campuses, the per-pupil funding goes to whatever public school they enroll in, charters included. A major exodus could have substantial financial implications for the school district.

“The problem that I have with the plan is that the plan is a ‘some kids strategy,’ not an ‘all kids strategy,’” said LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer.

Zimmer didn’t say how much money the school district could lose, but did say if the plan is successful L.A. Unified would have to cut staff.

But Broad's draft plan has its supporters.

“Reading it, I thought, ‘It’s bold, very ambitious,” said Antonia Hernandez, president of the California Community Foundation, the organization that manages about 1,600 charitable foundations and funds.

Hernandez said Broad sent her a copy of his plan several months ago to get her input.

The draft plan argues that LAUSD continues to fall short of offering every student a quality, high performing school. It outlines an effort, starting in 2016, to open 260 new charter schools in Los Angeles over the eight years.

“Thanks to the strength of its charter leaders and teachers, as well as its widespread civic and philanthropic support, Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to create the largest, highest-performing charter sector in the nation,” according to the draft plan.

Charter school leaders rallied around the proposal.

"We know that over time the sector has continued to grow, continued to diversify, and we see that the highest concentration of growth is happening in most underserved areas," said Myrna Castrejón, chief executive officer of the California Charter Schools Association, which represents charter schools.

The challenges in opening 260 new charter schools boil down to finding facilities where to house the schools, finding qualified teachers, and overcoming political opposition, according to details in the proposal.

The Broad plan also calls for expanding political support for charters. The plan recommends organizing charter school parents to build support for charters and convince other families in neighborhoods where schools are low-performing of the merits of charter schools.

For nearly two decades, Broad has spent a considerable amount of his wealth funding charter school groups and backing charter school supporters for political office.

The state and local teachers union have been the strongest opponents of Broad’s efforts.

Hernandez said she doesn’t want to undermine LAUSD, but backs choices for parents who want better schools than what the district is providing.

“My biggest concern is that adults will take sides, not thinking about the students,” Hernandez said.

Zimmer said LAUSD is not on its deathbed. He said many campuses in the school district, including  its magnet schools, provide a high quality education to its students.

“It [the proposal] needs to be a conversation about ways we can come together as a community instead of going to war with each other,” Zimmer said.

Broad's plan follows the resignation last year of John Deasy, former LAUSD superintendent, who stepped down under pressure following problems with the district's iPad and other technology initiatives. Deasy had a tense relationship with the teachers' union, UTLA, and lost the support of school board members.

He subsequently joined the training academy funded by Eli Broad, who has been Deasy's long-time supporter.

Draft of Charter School Expansion Plan