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LAUSD and charter schools locked in 'game of chicken' that could lead to unprecedented number of denials next week

For all the debate about the impact of a burgeoning charter school sector on the Los Angeles Unified School District, the district's leaders very rarely reject a request to open a charter school. Even more rarely do they refuse to allow an existing charter school to stay open.

Next week, that pattern could get broken in a big way.

District officials have asked the L.A. Unified School Board to reject an unprecedented 14 charter school applications during their meeting next Tuesday — exceeding in a single board meeting the number of rejections officials recommended all of last school year.

Charter schools are publicly-funded schools that are run, for the most part, by non-profit organizations, not school districts. Operators must petition an "authorizer," such as L.A. Unified, in order to start a new charter school. In order to remain open, they must "renew" their charters every three to five years by again applying to L.A. Unified staff.

But the final decisions on these applications are ultimately the L.A. Unified School Board's to make — and the staff's recommendations ahead of this Nov. 7 meeting have now set up votes that could become defining moments for this set board members.

(Click here to view a larger version of the above chart)

Four of the seven L.A. Unified board members received the endorsements of the California Charter Schools Association, and an even broader array of pro-charter groups spent millions in hopes of electing them, including record-setting sums in last spring's elections.

However, a board meeting last month offered a sign that this so-called "pro-charter majority" may not readily grant some of these pro-charter groups' wishes.

On Oct. 3, board members unanimously voted to deny a renewal for a charter school that refused to include the some of the boilerplate language district officials make every applicant to include in their "charter" — a charter school's founding, constitutional document.

Which brings us to these 14 charter schools recommended for denial on Nov. 7: at least 13 of these schools are also refusing to include this boilerplate language in their charters; they're essentially taking the same stand.

These sorts of disputes over templates like this one — which charter authorizers across the U.S. use to clarify discrepancies between state laws and their own policies — are common, said Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

But what's unusual, Richmond said, is for an authorizer to move to deny a charter school application because the two sides couldn't resolve such a dispute; Richmond has never heard of this happening before.

"The relationship between LAUSD and charter schools has become so difficult over the last few years," Richmond said, "that both sides feel like they need to go to the wall on something like this."

Here's why charter school leaders are pushing back: some feel the "district-required language" — essentially, the template L.A. Unified asks applicants to follow when writing their charters — has become overly burdensome. This boilerplate language is 39 printed pages long and binds charter schools to follow a wide range of policies, from state open government laws to unilateral mandates handed down by district officials.

Backed by the California Charter Schools Association, a coalition of school leaders have been pushing L.A. Unified for more flexibility — and, they say, clarity — in this template.

A sampling of the points of contention: some charter school leaders want freedom from L.A. Unified policies not explicitly approved by the school board. They want to make it possible to secure long-term agreements to use L.A. Unified facilities so, they say, parents won't have to wonder where their school will be located next year. They want to more explicitly define when the district's specially-empowered internal investigator, the Inspector General, can begin an inquiry at a charter school.

"We have known that seeking better policies could cause complications for our petitions," several charter school leaders wrote in a joint statement. "This is a risk we have been willing to take."

L.A. Unified officials contend the policies in the district-required language are not onerous, but instead clearly spell out the district's expectations of the schools and are in place to ensure students are safe and that charter schools follow the law.

"I disagree with any characterization that we've been intransigent," said David Holmquist, L.A. Unified's top attorney, adding that the district has been negotiating with charters on the issue since August — and had even agreed to changes charter schools proposed to the district-required language covering special education and insurance.

That said, Holmquist added, "We have a successful relationship with many charters that have not raised concerns over our district-required language. Essentially, the district-required language is all about student safety and transparency. I don’t like the idea that we have to defend being transparent or caring about student safety."

But beyond any individual points of disagreement is a bigger problem, Richmond said: "Neither side trusts the other one right now."

Richmond said there are other cities where there's "frustration and anger" in the relationship between charter schools and authorizers. But, he said, "what is unique here [in L.A.] is the fact that some schools apparently may lose their charters because of it."

"Can [the relationship] be saved?" Richmond added. "I think so, but you would require both sides to step back from this game of chicken and seek to work with each other with good intention."

Among the schools recommended for denial are eight existing charters from Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, the largest charter school network in L.A., that were seeking renewals. L.A. Unified staff also asked the board to reject petitions by the STEM Prep and Equitas charter networks to open new schools. Staff also asked the board to deny a renewal for the North Valley Military Institute. These 11 schools all raised various levels of objections to the district-required language.

Leaders of another two schools, Magnolia Science Academy 4 and 5, also raised objections to the district-required language, but district officials say they recommended denial over broader concerns at the schools.

The fourteenth recommended denial — a petition for a new school called International Studies Language Academy — seemed to center around separate issues with the school's proposal.

(Click here to view a larger version of the above chart)

In addition, leaders of the KIPP network of charter schools said L.A. Unified staffers have recommended approval for seven of their petitions — but with conditions. The renewed KIPP schools said the district is asking them to approve policy changes with which the schools' leaders do not agree. The changes essentially re-impose points of district-required language. But if KIPP leaders refuse, these schools risk sanctions down the line, including possible charter revocation.

In sum, KIPP leaders feel their seven applications are being approved, but in name only.

KIPP CEO Marcia Aaron said she surmises the reason why her schools' applications were not rejected outright, like the other charters who challenged aspects of the district-required language, was because they did not push for changes to the language related to the district's Inspector General.

L.A. Unified officials also recommended twelve other new school petitions or renewal applications for board approval.

In their joint statement, leaders of the KIPP, Alliance, Equitas, STEM Prep and Magnolia charter networks said they "remain hopeful that the LAUSD board on November 7 will do the right thing for students, make decisions based on the academic, fiscal and governance quality of our schools."

But their request depends on L.A. Unified board members overruling district staff — and historically, that hasn't happened. Of 243 charter school requests that have come to the board since Aug. 2013, board members have only voted to overrule the staff's recommendation 10 times, a KPCC analysis shows.

If the L.A. Unified board does accept district staff's recommendations next Tuesday, backers of the 14 denied charters can appeal to the L.A. County Board of Education — a body that has a reputation for being a much less demanding authorizer.

If these schools were ultimately authorized by L.A. County, these 14 charter schools could continue to operate within L.A. Unified's boundaries, but without any input or oversight from L.A. Unified officials. L.A. Unified would also lose out on the authorizer fees these schools pay in order to cover the district's oversight costs.

"I think it’ll be unfortunate if they do end up at the county," said L.A. Unified's David Holmquist. "But that will be their choice, not ours."

For their part, though, Aaron and STEM Prep charter school CEO Emilio Pack have expressed their desire to stay in the district.

"We want to keep that partnership," Pack said in a call on Thursday. "It’s a good partnership. In fact, we’d like to expand on it."