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Charter Schools Sue Over New Campus-Sharing Limits

The LAUSD Board of Education votes to approve the new Proposition 39 Charter School Co-Location Policy on March 19, 2024. Their previous vote to approve the policy, on February 13, was repeated after lawyers raised concerns about the legality of a member’s virtual participation in the meeting.

Los Angeles—On Tuesday, March 19th, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Board of Education voted 4-3 to restrict new and modified charter school co-locations (or agreements to share space on one campus) on many of the district’s campuses across the Los Angeles region starting in 2025. Weeks later, the California Charter School Association sued to block the policy in court. The new policy prohibits whenever possible the offering of additional space to charter schools on the campuses of the district’s 100 Priority Schools, Black Student Achievement Plan (BSAP) schools, and Community Schools, as well as in locations where the difference in grade levels between the district’s traditional schools and the charter schools could be unsafe or give charter schools an advantage in enrollment. The policy also changes the school district’s definition of which classrooms on campuses can be given to charter schools to use. It was drafted by school district staff in order to implement the controversial Goldberg-Rivas resolution passed last year by the Board of Education’s new anti-charter school majority. Questions remain about how the policy will be implemented when it goes into effect for the 2025-26 school year—but its adoption, and the lawsuit filed against it, are just the latest developments in a decades-long debate over the prevalence of independently-run public charter schools, such as WISH, within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

In their lawsuit, filed on April 2nd, the California Charter School Association (CCSA) argues that the policy violates Proposition 39, a law approved by voters in 2000 which requires school districts in California to accommodate charter school students “in conditions reasonably equivalent to those in which the students would be accommodated if they were attending other public schools” if their schools request to rent space on district campuses. According to the CCSA and other charter school advocates, the school district’s new policy prioritizes the accommodation of students in traditional, district-run schools over those in charter schools, worsening political divisions in a school district that they believe has enough campus space for charter schools and other public schools to coexist.

The resolution’s supporters, including a majority of the current elected Board of Education and many parents, students, and staff from district-run schools, disagree. They cast the new policy as an effort to shield the school district’s most important programs from the negative effects of sharing space with another school, which they say has left many schools under-resourced and limited student access to programs which often operate in “empty classrooms” they had to give up to charter schools, or in spaces they have to split time in, like athletic facilities and libraries. The Board of Education’s resolution directing District staff to draft the new policy, passed by the same 4-3 majority in September, stated that, “[t]he co-location of charter schools, pursuant to Proposition 39, is often detrimental to District schools and the students they educate, and has a tangible negative impact on the District’s ability to maintain and grow important priorities…”

If not interrupted by the courts, the revised co-location policy will take effect as the school district considers new or modified co-location agreements for the 2025-2026 school year (the school year after next). Its most sweeping provisions require LAUSD staff to, “as operationally feasible and permitted by law… [avoid] Proposition 39 co-locations that …

  • Are on school sites with the District’s Priority Schools, BSAP schools, and/or Community Schools;
  • Compromise a District school’s capacity to serve neighborhood children; and/or
  • Result in grade span arrangements that negatively impact student safety and build charter school pipelines that actively deter students from attending District schools.”

These changes are expected to impact tens of thousands of District and charter school students across many of LAUSD’s campuses, which are spread across the City of Los Angeles and many outlying areas. The policy specifically targets new or expanded co-locations the district’s 100 Priority Schools (100 schools identified by the district as needing special support due to underperformance or unique student needs), Black Student Achievement Plan (BSAP) schools (in the highest tiers of LAUSD’s 2020 plan to provide greater support to schools that have historically underserved high Black student populations), and Community Schools (part of a California initiative encouraging schools to partner with their local communities). More ambiguous language also suggests that the district should disallow co-locations of older charter school students with younger District school students for safety reasons and to avoid giving such charter schools an advantage over local District schools in attracting matriculating students.

According to the California Charter School Association, the new policy would likely have prohibited about half of the 53 charter school co-locations currently existing on LAUSD campuses had it been in place before they were agreed to. That includes schools like the WISH middle and high schools on the campus of Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets (a BSAP and Community school), and WISH Elementary on the campus of Orville Wright Middle School (a BSAP school). However, the policy does not require the school district to move these charter schools from where they are already co-located unless “existing conditions change” for reasons like the school requesting more space or having revised its charter (the plan, approved by the LAUSD Board of Education every few years, for how each charter school can operate) to allow the school to enroll more students. It’s unlikely, though not impossible, that the new co-location policy would require one of WISH’s campuses to be moved in the near future, even after the policy takes effect for the 2025-2026 school year.

The policy also seeks to protect “set asides,” spaces other than offices and rooms where classes are usually taught that the District seeks to avoid giving to charter schools when possible. It lists examples such as technology labs, computer rooms, and support spaces for students and the staff that work with them. Previously, some District schools said that such rooms had sometimes been labeled as “empty classrooms” and given to charter schools, limiting their ability to provide important services and straining their staff.

In their lawsuit, the California Charter Schools Association argues that these provisions violate Proposition 39, the law governing charter school co-location, by giving priority to district-run schools over charter schools. For example, they say that the “set aside” rooms seek to give District schools as much space as they want to offer programs and services by giving charter schools less space to offer classes and programs of their own. According to the CCSA, the new policy assumes that charter schools are only entitled to “leftovers” after all the space district-run schools want is taken, violating Proposition 39’s “resonably equivalent” accomodations rule.

Charter school advocates also say that the new rules will harm students at both district-run and charter schools. For one thing, the policy will require many charter schools, sooner or later, to move to the remaining district campuses which aren’t protected from co-locations by its changes. This may result in multiple charter schools being placed on a single campus, ultimately harming the District schools there. Further, they claim that the rules seek to chip away at the very ability of charter schools to exist, despite data that they say shows charter schools often provide better education to students. Some charter schools also seek to serve specific groups of students that they think have been underserved by their local public schools; WISH’s focus on inclusivity for people with disabilities is one example. Advocates see charter schools as key to a public school system willing to innovate and provide options to students with varying needs.

Many in the school district, however, say they’re fed up with sharing space and resources with charter schools. Opponents of charter schools, often supported by the LAUSD teachers’ union, United Teachers Los Angeles (many charter schools, including WISH, are not unionized), argue that charter schools take resources and students away from district-run schools, making it harder for them to provide the innovative programs they want to implement. Since public schools are funded largely based on how many students enroll, district-run schools stand to lose funding if students choose to go to other schools, including private schools and other public schools like charter or magnet schools. With the growing popularity of “school choice” and charter schools, some have worried that declining funding and campus space taken over by charter schools could lead to worse and worse outcomes for the most vulnerable students as all others jump ship.

While charter schools are not run by school districts directly, they are regulated in many ways. Charter schools are public schools which must be approved by the school board (which previously had a pro-charter school majority for many years) and meet certain requirements, like admitting students equitably (usually through a lottery for eligible students which only gives priority for practical reasons like having siblings at the same school or for living within the parent school district) and charging no tuition. While the future of the system remains a subject of vehement debate, it is simply a fact—more or less bitter—of everyday life for many of the over 560,000 students who attend schools, charter or otherwise, within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

~ Nicholas Steinman

ForThe Aviary‘s previous reporting on the debate over charter schools and the passage of the original Goldberg-Rivas Resolution which compelled the drafting of the new policy, see this article, originally printed inThe Aviary‘s December 2023 issue.

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