Showdown looming between L.A. Unified and charter schools

A showdown is looming between the charter division of the and charter schools that want to buck some of the district’s rules.

District officials say the rules are needed to keep the schools accountable. The schools call them bureaucratic and say complying is costly.

The impasse will move to the Board of Education next Tuesday, when board members will consider 12 charters that, as of now, district staff will recommend closing. Six other charters could face the same fate because they are unwilling to accept conditions attached to their recommended approval.

It will then be up to the school board majority — which was elected with charter support — to decide whether to side with staff or the schools.

Following the staff recommendation could threaten the future of schools that enroll thousands of students, although the charters have the right to appeal to county or state education officials to stay open.

Both sides say they are looking out for students.

A key issue is the authority of the district’s Inspector General to conduct long-running investigations of charter schools. Charter operators want to narrow this power, and say state law supports such limits. They also want more legal rights to contest district decisions and more multi-year contracts to use district campuses. Current state law requires only one-year agreements.

More broadly, they contend that their schools suffer from having to navigate district policies that change frequently, often appear to be arbitrary and are applied inconsistently.

Having fewer rules, they say, would be in keeping with state law and the idea that charter schools should be less burdened by bureaucracy and thus freed to approach education more creatively and efficiently.

The five charter networks opposing the rules “are absolutely committed to making improvements to policy that are reasonable, straightforward and in the best interests of students,” said Cassy Horton, a managing director with the California Charter Schools Association.

Both sides have compromised on some issues, but not enough to resolve the dispute.

The division recommended denying renewed authorization to eight Alliance College-Ready schools, two Magnolia schools and one Camino Nuevo school. Six KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools may be reauthorized on the condition that they demonstrate compliance with district rules in the near future. KIPP administrators have not agreed to that condition.

Three proposed charters, which hope to open in the future, also are at risk in this dispute: one each from KIPP, Equitas Academy Charter Schools and STEM Preparatory Schools.

The board’s vote on the recommendations could be its most defining and important to date. In July, a new majority took control, the first elected with major financial support from charter supporters.

Charter operators felt the time was right to press for changes they consider long overdue.

“We remain hopeful that the LAUSD board on November 7th will do the right thing for students,” leaders of the five charter networks said in a statement.

Charter schools are privately managed, publicly funded and exempt, under state law, from some —but not all — rules that apply to traditional schools. L.A. Unified has imposed regulations of its own, as have other districts.

L.A. Unified officials say they’ve developed their charter rules and policy over two decades of experience, and that their approach has made the school system a national model for charter oversight. The rules, they argue, have helped make many charters successful and kept them publicly accountable. With 224 independent charter schools, the district is California’s largest charter authorizer.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons with our schools,” said Jose Cole-Gutierrez, director of the charter division. “These are lessons learned to try to be helpful, not to try to undermine any autonomies.”

The board majority could side with charters and overrule the staff recommendation, but such a move — which could be seen as reducing oversight — could come with political blowback if Ref Rodriguez is the deciding vote.

Rodriguez faces criminal charges of political money laundering. Separately, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, the charter network he co-founded, recently reported possible conflicts of interest involving Rodriguez and $285,000 in payments that he allegedly authorized when he was a senior executive at PUC.

Rodriguez, who has denied any wrongdoing, left his job at PUC Schools when he joined the school board in July 2015.

In all, 28 existing charter schools will come up for renewal Tuesday, and four new ones will be seeking authorization. Two negative recommendations, for a proposed charter and for the North Valley Military Institute, will be based on factors other than the dispute over district rules.

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