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Advocates say LAUSD unduly scrutinizing charter applications

Empty school desk chairs sit in an elementary school classroom
Photo by Derek Bruff via Flickr Creative Commons
Empty school desk chairs sit in an elementary school classroom

Tuesday’s Los Angeles Unified school board meeting was like most others: a batch of charter school applications were up for renewal and approval.

But on this day, charter school advocates said, L.A. Unified’s administrators had shifted previous support for the independent campuses and are now giving undue scrutiny to several petitions.

“We are seeing an unprecedented uptick in the recommendation of denials of charter schools,” said Sarah Angel, the managing director of advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association.

She said the school board approved 89 percent of the charter school petitions it received in 2013, while this year, that rate has been cut in half.

Angel argues that the shift came last year after a plan to double the number of charter schools in L.A. became public.

Tuesday’s school board agenda included seven charter school petitions. Staff recommended three of them be denied. The denial recommendations included concerns about academics and financial resources.

Angel said the best example of a charter petition L.A. Unified got wrong is the renewal of the 10-year-old Excel Charter Academy.

“We’re one of the best options around our community and we have a big waiting list,” said Apolo Trujillo, whose two sons attended the school. “We have built a reputation because students want to go to our school. We have a very strong academic program.”

In documents submitted to the L.A. Unified school board staff criticized Excel’s academic performance in recent years, citing large decreases in academic performance among most students. API scores for Latino students fell by 75 points in 2013.

Trujillo is also a math teacher at the school. Like many schools, Trujillo said, the shift to more critical thinking learning standards contributed to the drop. The school, he said, is trying to help students overcome the challenges of home.

“We work in a community that’s one of the lowest income communities around,” Trujillo said.

Excel won renewal of its charter for five years after a 3-3 vote by school board members. Denial of the charter renewal required four votes, according to school board rules. 

Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of L.A. Unified’s teachers union, says the charter school approval process has been too lax in recent years. He urged the school board to be more selective.

“California has one of the most lax, generous structures of law for charter schools so it’s hardly that there is a microscope on charter schools," he said. "There hasn’t been enough regulation on charter schools."

This story has been updated.