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LAUSD Votes to Restrict Charter Schools

Attendees watch a meeting of the LAUSD Board of Education
Attendees watch a meeting of the LAUSD Board of Education in this 2012 photo by Tami Abdollah for KPCC

Los Angeles—In a contentious meeting on Tuesday, September 26th, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education took a major step to limit how charter schools can share space, or co-locate, on district-owned campuses. The Board voted 4-2 to approve a resolution, introduced earlier this year by board president Jackie Goldberg and member Dr. Rocio Rivas, which directs the school district’s superintendent to develop a policy to avoid approving new or modified charter school co-locations on the district’s 100 Priority Schools, Black Student Achievement Plan schools, and Community Schools, as well as in cases in which the differences in grade levels between the co-locating schools could be deemed unsafe or detrimental to the enrollment of local district (non-charter) schools. The passage of the resolution marks a major development in years of debate over the prevalence of such semi-independent schools in the L.A. region.

Supporters of the resolution hailed it as a decisive step to mitigate problems and inequities associated with charter school co-location on district campuses. However, charter school advocates claimed that the resolution’s proposed policy would be divisive, impractical, and potentially illegal, as well as increasing tensions and logistical challenges for many district and charter schools. The policy wouldn’t result in any schools moving immediately, but it is ultimately expected to lead to substantial changes for elementary, middle, and high schools across LAUSD’s sprawling jurisdiction. The school district covers a large portion of Los Angeles County, extending from San Pedro to Sylmar in the San Fernando Valley, and from Westchester to East Los Angeles and enrolling over 560,000 total students, just short of the population of the U.S. state of Wyoming. 

Traditionally, most public K-12 schools in the U.S. have been operated directly by school districts, independent units of local government whose boundaries and sizes vary independently of the cities in which they operate. What school district someone lives in can thus have a substantial impact on the nature, funding levels, and quality of their traditional public schools. On the other hand, charter schools, such as WISH Academy, get their funding from the government and operate under similar constraints to other public schools, but they are not directly operated by school districts. Instead, charter schools are run independently under a charter approved by a school district, which sets out details on how they can operate. Charter school advocates claim that this model allows high-performing and innovative approaches to education not yet implemented by large school districts to be realized in charter schools, which also often serve educationally disadvantaged communities and, like district-operated schools, cannot charge tuition or enact selective admission requirements.

Charter schools can interact with their school districts and other public schools in a number of ways, but perhaps the most controversial is co-location: when a charter school operates on the district-owned campus of another public school. Often, this occurs when a campus has extra space due to a decline in enrollment, whether due to changing demographics, parents sending students elsewhere, or other factors. School districts have been legally required to offer available space to nearby charter schools in such circumstances since the approval of California’s Proposition 39 by voters in 2000. In the case of LAUSD, charter school supporters are keen to point out that the district has more than enough total classrooms to accommodate all public schools, including charters. However, many district-operated schools oppose co-location with charter schools, feeling that accommodating them takes up space they could use for their own programs and services. Co-location can also lead to administrative and logistical tensions between the involved schools, especially when shared facilities like auditoriums and outdoor spaces are involved.

Since elections late in 2022, the LAUSD Board of Education has had an anti-charter majority for the first time in many years, which may have provided the impetus for the board’s recent measures. The resolution on charter school co-location, known in short as the Goldberg-Rivas Resolution, was passed at the Board of Education’s monthly meeting on September 26th, which lasted over 5 hours and featured impassioned statements from students, parents, and educators on various sides of the debate.  

The resolution states that “[t]he co-location of charter schools, pursuant to Proposition 39, is often detrimental to District schools and the students they educate” and directs the Superintendent to return to the board within 45 days with a proposed policy to, “as operationally feasible and permitted by law… avoid Proposition 39 co-locations that: (1) are on school sites with the District’s 100 Priority Schools, BSAP [Black Student Achievement Plan] schools, and Community Schools, (2) compromise District schools’ capacity to serve neighborhood children, and/or (3) result in grade span arrangements that negatively impact student safety and build charter school pipelines that actively deter students from attending District schools.” The resolution also calls for more information-gathering prior to co-location proposals and a clarified definition of which classrooms count as “empty”, in order to avoid district schools’ spaces for music rooms, robotics and computer labs, student services and intervention, and more counting as “empty” and being taken over by charter schools. The details of this new policy are expected to be reviewed by the board in November for final approval.

The policy developed by LAUSD staff under the Goldberg-Rivas Resolution will, if approved, “guide District decisions” in requests for new co-locations and whenever existing arrangements change, such as if a school adds new grade levels or increases its enrollment. Therefore, while the resolution is unlikely to result in immediate changes for most of the students enrolled in charter schools co-located on district property, it could cause more such schools to move onto different campuses over time as student populations and school charters change. While critics of the resolution point out that this could cause a substantial increase in schools co-locating on the remaining eligible campuses and could lead to new transportation hurdles for school families and staff, Goldberg and Rivas argued that the resolution was a necessary first step to shield the most vulnerable district schools from suffering further impacts.

The charter school debate is just one part of a national conversation about how public education should be administered. Charter schools are part of a movement towards school choice, in which parents have multiple options for where to send their students. Believers in school choice claim that competition breeds better schools for everyone and provides options for students who have been failed by traditional public schools, such as many with special needs. However, in light of the U.S.’s long history of unequal access to public education, some fear that too much choice could encourage the most privileged students to jump ship first, depriving already-struggling school districts of the funds and resources needed to sustain or improve their offerings. Within LAUSD alone, over 150,000 students—about a quarter of LAUSD’s total—are enrolled in 275 charter schools. While charter school advocates attribute this to strong performance, opponents, such as Goldberg and Rivas, believe that charter schools have taken students and resources away from the most vulnerable schools in a district in which upwards of 80% of students live in poverty.

LAUSD staff have still yet to publish a final co-location policy, as required by the Goldberg-Rivas Resolution. When they do, it will be discussed and voted on again by the Board of Education before taking effect, in what will surely be an opportunity for further debate over the future of public education in Los Angeles and the nation.

~ Nicholas Steinman

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