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LAUSD's message to philanthropists: 'Don't just invest in charter schools'

Board Member Ref Rodriguez speaks during LAUSD's Annual Board of Education Meeting on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 at LAUSD Headquarters.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Board Member Ref Rodriguez speaks during LAUSD's Annual Board of Education Meeting on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 at LAUSD Headquarters.

Two Los Angeles Unified School Board members want the district to more aggressively court big funders and outside academic partners to expand district school offerings and win an escalating school choice arms race.

Board members have already asked L.A. Unified leaders numerous times to increase the number of seats available in the district's popular programs — to name a few: magnet and pilot schools, dual language immersion programs and International Baccalaureate tracks — in hopes of reversing a decade-long decline in enrollment.

But a new resolution proposed by board members Ref Rodriguez and Mónica García adds an emphasis on seeking outside partnerships. If passed during Tuesday's board meeting, the resolution directs Superintendent Michelle King to produce a strategy for engaging funders and organizations that might help scaling up successful academic offerings.

"In my opinion," he added later, "I do think philanthropy has abandoned the Los Angeles Unified School District. Los Angeles is such a huge resource. There's many high-wealth individuals, there's foundations. And this is a way for us to say, 'This is the best stuff that we have.'"

Prominent charter school backers have already begun to seek out donors to fund a broad expansion of charter school choices that, according to a plan leaked to the press last fall, would cost $135.2 million by 2023. District advocates worry such a large expansion will drain students from traditional L.A. Unified schools and prompt a funding crisis.

"The philanthropic world has given a lot of money to charter schools, and it puts the district in the disadvantage," Rodriguez said in an interview. "I think for us, this is about saying to the philanthropic world, 'Invest in what works, don't just invest in charter schools.'"

More than 67,000 students attend roughly 200 magnet schools in L.A. Unified, district officials said, but waiting lists for the programs remain long.

Rodriguez left the door open to the types of partners he would hope L.A. Unified would seek. As an example, he wondered whether NASA would be willing to partner with the district's STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) programs. He did specify the partnerships he envisioned were not those where outside groups would necessarily be involved in running individual schools.

Rodriguez, who co-founded the Partnership to Uplift Communities network of charter schools, said he hoped district leaders would ask charter networks who've expanded successful programming for guidance on how to scale up L.A. Unified's successful offerings without diminishing their quality. 

If board members approve it during their meeting Tuesday, the resolution would direct King to report back to the board within 60 days.