Monday, March 21, 2016



By Michael Janofsky | EdSource Today |

March 16, 2016  ::  In the face of widespread pockets of resistance around the state, the California Charter Schools Association has embarked on a new expansion campaign, aiming to serve 1 million students in charter schools across the state by 2022.

If the goal is reached, it would almost double the 581,100 students now attending state charters, bringing to about 18 percent the number of public school students who would be enrolled in them. Currently, it’s about 9 percent.

“We have to stay focused on our core mission of expanding high-quality charter schools as quickly as we can,” Jed Wallace, the association’s president and chief executive officer, said during a break at the group’s 23rd annual conference in Long Beach this week. “We definitely want growth, but we do not want growth if it’s at the expense of quality.”

The theme of the conference this year is “March to One Million.”

Yet the “march” is playing out across a rocky landscape, with various efforts aimed at stunting the growth that has made California the nation’s leading host of charter schools, with 1,230 in operation. In 2013-14, the latest year for which data is available from the National Alliance For Public Charter Schools, 6,440 charters were operating around the country.

In California, no opposition to charter growth has been more strident than efforts in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the school board recently passed a resolution condemning “external initiatives that seek to reduce public education in Los Angeles to an educational marketplace.”

It was a direct response to a plan announced last year by the philanthropist Eli Broad to expand the number of charters in the district, which is already home to more of them (nearly 230) than any other school district in the country. The plan has morphed into a group called Greater Public Schools Now, which has widened the mission beyond charter creation to include replicating all manner of schools that can provide high quality education, including magnets, pilots and traditional public schools.

This week the charter school association named Broad and his wife Edythe as charter schools’ “supporter of the year.”

Whatever the form of the plan, it has engendered widespread opposition, particularly from the L.A. teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which has held rallies around the city to accuse Broad and other reformers of undermining public education. The teachers’ effort has been joined by other unions affiliated with the district.

Other anti-charter efforts have surfaced elsewhere in the state.

    “With more than 150,000 kids on waiting lists, it’s clear that people want more charter schools,” said Jed Wallace, president and chief executive of the California Charter Schools Association.

In Orange County, the Anaheim Union High School District board and superintendent have urged state lawmakers to place a moratorium on all new charters, asserting that “wealthy and disconnected elites – the ‘1 percent’ – have successfully lobbied elected officials to pass overly permissive laws allowing ‘charter’ schools, many of which operate on a business model whose main goal is to make money,” as they wrote in a commentary for the “Voice of OC” website.

They accused charter operators of “continuing to hide their funding, ownership and financial relationships.”

So far, said Anaheim Union High School District Superintendent Michael Matsuda, no one in the Legislature has introduced a measure that reflects their concerns. “Our role as educational leaders is to raise awareness for the community,” Matsuda said. “Their job is to address the problem or not.”

In San Diego, at least three lawsuits are underway, pitting one school district against another in cases that involve resource centers and learning centers affiliated with charter schools operating in districts other than those that authorized them.

While Wallace and other charter school officials say the intent is to discourage charter expansion, Music Watson, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Office of Education, said the lawsuits have arisen because state education code provides no prohibition against opening such centers in adjoining school districts.

“Over the last few years, as the suits have increased, districts involved now sense a need to clarify the issue,” she said, insisting that the legal actions are not meant as deterrents to charter growth. In fact, the number of charters in San Diego County has increased, to 123 for the 2014-15 school year, from 92 five years earlier.

A statewide ballot initiative for November that would eliminate charter schools altogether is now in the signature-gathering phase. It needs 365,880 signatures by Aug. 8 but has not yet reached the goal, according to the California Secretary of State.

If approved by voters, it would eliminate the state charter law, giving existing charters the option of closing or reverting to traditional schools. It also says passage would mean $5 billion of state funding would shift from charters to school districts.

These efforts aside, charter schools have enjoyed steady growth across California for more than a decade, increasing by an average of 61 a year since 1998-99, when the association started tracking them. Most are independent charters, which means they are privately run, using public money.

By the 2014-15 school year, the last year for which it has data, the charter school association said 158,000 students remained on charter school waiting lists.

“The backlash is a function of our succeeding,” Wallace said. “It’s generally coming from those interested in protecting the status quo, but the general public strongly supports charter schools.”

National polls conducted last year show that public opinion generally favors charter school as a choice for parents. A poll by Education Next found that 51 percent “support the formation of charter schools” while another poll, by Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup, found that 64 percent “favor the idea of charter schools.”

“We’re just going to stay focused on what we’re doing,” Wallace said. “With more than 150,000 kids on waiting lists, it’s clear that people want more charter schools. Those who resist, and those who resist with greater intensity, I hope they can find new ways to tone it down.”

By Michael Janofsky | EdSource Today |

March 20, 2016  ::  It landed like a bombshell last summer, a leaked plan to double the number of charter schools in Los Angeles Unified and students attending them over the next eight years. It talked of raising half a billion dollars from foundations and high-wealth donors to get it done, all with the idea of improving the quality of education for low-income students.

What wasn’t a shock was who was behind it: Eli Broad, an L.A.-based philanthropist and leading force in national education reform. Nor was it a surprise how district officials reacted, accusing Broad of aiming to destroy public education in the city by turning children into market shares. Los Angeles already has more charter schools, about 230, than any other school district in the country.

In the nine months since the leak, much has changed. The so-called “Broad plan” has morphed into an organization called Great Public Schools Now, which is keeping the focus on improving education quality but aiming to achieve it with a bigger toolbox.

“The original intent hasn’t changed,” said the group’s new executive director, Myrna Castrejón, a former lobbyist with the California Charter Schools Association. “What has changed is a greater refinement of the idea, replicating schools that are working well, any kind of schools, and prioritizing them for kids most in need.”

As for specific goals as originally posed? Forget them, Castrejón said. It’s all a work in progress. Yes, it could mean more charter schools, she said, but it could also mean new magnet schools, pilot schools, even teacher-led schools that provide more instructional autonomy.

And fundraising has only begun, she said, a suggestion that the original $490 million target remains far distant. “So far, it’s been very encouraging,” she said. “It’s not chump change, but it’s not $490 million, either.”

Whether the shift in approach represents a sincere effort to involve the school district or a strategy to blunt intense criticism from defenders of traditional public education, or maybe both, Castrejón says the group intends to examine district schools that are excelling and replicate their efforts in low-income areas of Los Angeles where academic performance is lagging.

But whatever the approach, the obstacles are formidable. For one, the L.A. Unified school board is aligned against the new group. The seven members voted unanimously in January to oppose any effort that would drive down enrollment, draining district resources, through “external initiatives.”

While the vote was largely symbolic in that state education code sets a high bar for districts to deny charter applications and renewals, the board has nonetheless stopped approving charters with the same frequency as before the Broad plan was made public.

Students work in a Santa Ana Unified classroom.
California charter schools set goal of 1 million students despite pushback

Nor does the board stand alone in opposition. Before the vote, leaders of all the district’s labor unions appeared together to express solidarity in supporting the resolution. The teachers union website still includes a prominent picture of Eli Broad beside the words “Billionaires must stop.”

Castrejón, who has been on the job less than a month, said she has had several conversations with the district’s new superintendent, Michelle King, and found her to be receptive to at least discussing new avenues to elevate academic performance. At a recent community meeting, King said she would like to meet with leaders of non-traditional schools to discuss new strategies.

Encouraged as she was by the superintendent’s openness, Castrejón said she was still mindful of the difficult political landscape. Only two of the board’s seven members — Ref Rodriguez and Monica García — are recognized as charter school allies. The other five have won election with support from the teachers union.

And a brief conversation with the teachers union president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, left her doubtful she would win his support no matter how plans unfold. “I’m not holding my breath that I changed his perception,” she said.

Other challenges for the work ahead include finding teachers to work in whatever new schools are created, building community support and locating facilities to reduce the need for charters to share space with traditional schools as Proposition 39 allows.

“A lot depends on the fundraising,” she said.

For now, Great Public Schools Now remains in its infancy. It has a board chairman, Bill Siart, founder of ExED, a nonprofit that supports charter schools administration. It has plans to announce the entire seven-member board this week.

And it has an executive director who is working out of a rental car until June, when she plans to move to Los Angeles from Sacramento and to find a downtown office to put the plan in motion — whatever shape it may take.

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