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As the the LAUSD charter schools conflict escalates, here’s what you need to know

Los Angeles Unified's newly elected school board president, Steve Zimmer, speaks during a board meeting on July 1, 2015 at LAUSD headquarters.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Los Angeles Unified's newly elected school board president, Steve Zimmer, speaks during a board meeting on July 1, 2015 at LAUSD headquarters.

Tuesday’s L.A. Unified school board meeting was unusual. What made it out of the ordinary, charter school supporters said, is that school district staff is recommending the denial of charter school petitions much more often than now.

In 2013, the advocates said, school district staff recommended approval of nearly 90 percent of charter petitions. This year, that rate is half of what it was.

Both advocates and even some LAUSD officials say that the shift is a response to the plan, first floated by wealthy philanthropist Eli Broad, to rapidly expand the number of charter schools in Los Angeles, with the eventual goal of enrolling up to half of LAUSD's current students. What's at issue is whether or not that increased opposition to new charters is appropriate. 

Here's a look at why this week looks like an escalation in the conflict between the forces for and against charter schools in Los Angeles.

Here’s what was unusual about this week’s board meeting.

The board had seven charter petitions to consider at Tuesday's meeting. Staff recommended denial for three based on lackluster performance, faulty financing, and unsound academic plans.

Those recommendations for rejections prompted charter school supporters to cry foul. They said the school district is exercising unwarranted scrutiny because of their opposition to a plan by philanthropist Eli Broad to double the number of charters in LA.

Here’s how the plan unveiled last year by philanthropist Eli Broad to rapidly expand the number of charter schools in Los Angeles is shaping the struggle over charters.

School board president Steve Zimmer said that he is now scrutinizing charter applications more than he was before, but he said that's the right thing to do to protect the well-being of the school district. When the plan was unveiled, he said he became more concerned that if expansion continues at the current pace, L.A. Unified would cease to exist as we know it. 

“I didn’t put that plan on the landscape," he said. "I’m not the one who is continuing to open more and more charters in LAUSD when there are districts surrounding LAUSD with lower or comparable student outcomes where there are no charters."

At Tuesday’s meeting, Zimmer and his colleagues on the board eventually did go against one staff recommendation and gave the Excel Charter Academy in Los Angeles, run by Partnerships to Uplift Communities (PUC), another chance. Board members disagreed with a separate staff recommendation to deny a new PUC charter petition because of concerns over how the school would be structured and gave the new school the go ahead to open.

United Teachers Los Angeles approved a significant member-dues increase on Wednesday. Here’s how it’ll affect the charter school struggle.

The dues increase means that UTLA will raise its revenues by more than $7 million yearly. That’ll give the teachers union a lot more money to do things like challenge pro-charter school board members in elections, and build support against charters by mobilizing parents, a tactic used by charter school operators. And UTLA could use the money to come up with its own proposals for independent schools.

Cal State Fullerton education professor Marc Ecker said charter school growth has put the union’s back against the wall.

“The union in L.A. is beginning to see that they’re losing members, they’re losing teachers, and I think that’s what has ramped this up so high,” he said.

UTLA is raising the money to counter the millions of dollars that charter supporters, namely philanthropist Eli Broad, have donated to pro-charter political candidates and to support charter school groups.

Why all eyes are now on the pro-charter school camp.

L.A. Unified school board members are scrutinizing charter petitions more closely and the teachers union is amassing a war chest to fight charter expansion, so now eyes are on how the pro-charter camp is going to proceed with its plan.

“UTLA is going to amass the war chest that they feel that they need,” said the California Charter Schools Association’s Sarah Angel. “But I think all of us in public education: moms, dads, teachers, principals, and board members need to be focused on the number one priority which is educating kids and how we do that better, how do we improve outcomes, raise children out of poverty, get them to graduation, college, and career. That needs to be our number one focus, not raising money, not fighting each other.”

Why next year’s L.A. Unified school board elections are key.

Three school board members are up for re-election: Steve Zimmer, Monica Ratliff, and Monica Garcia, the latter of whom has been charter schools’ most ardent supporter on the board over the years. With those three seats in play, foes and supporters of charter schools alike will be fighting to solidify their side's support on the board. 

A previous version of the story said that the second PUC charter petition was denied by the board. The board approved that petition. KPCC regrets the error.