A number of Los Angeles charter schools up for renewal this week are throwing a tantrum if they don’t get their way.
Charter school operators have refused to comply with Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) charter school policies and say they won’t include some district standard requirements they don’t like in their charter application. For example, they are refusing to comply with special education rules and the ability of the district to pursue investigations of fraud and other illegal practices.
They say they should not be subject to basic transparency, accountability, and oversight requirements. California charter school operators have plenty of autonomy as the state law grants them. But that doesn’t mean they get to do things that harm education, allow fraud to go undetected and uninvestigated, and allow them to set their own rules on basic educational policies and programs such as school discipline and special education.
And today in Los Angeles, given the very public problems and investigations related to charter school operators at LAUSD, it couldn’t be a worse time to reduce oversight and accountability mechanisms. One recently elected school board member and founder of Partnerships to Uplift Communities (PUC), a charter school network in the region, has been charged with three felonies for campaign finance violations, and the school district is asking the PUC’s operators about potential conflicts of interest and delayed reporting of financial transaction.
Rather than relaxed rules, Los Angeles families, more than ever, need greater transparency, strengthened oversight, and more power to root out fraud.
Charter operators are objecting to the ability of the district’s inspector general to investigate all possible malfeasance and to limit the scope of investigations they do conduct. LAUSD should be able to pursue any possible violation of the law in the quickest and most effective way. The Office of the Inspector General, upon initial investigation, can determine the full scope needed. But failing to treat allegations as seriously as they could potentially be will inevitably allow problems to go unaddressed.
Charter operators also want to be allowed to become part of a Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) that may be hundreds of miles away and that have far less ability to oversee the schools. Several small districts in rural areas of the state welcome distant charters into their SELPA and the fees that come with it. Los Angeles is correct to require local charters to be part of the local SELPA so that special education students and programs in individual schools are tightly integrated into the local school district. Special education students need to be able to access and rely on services and programs that are available district wide. Special education students often change schools as they encounter challenges and seek the best situation for their education; sometimes back and forth between both charter and traditional schools.
The charter operators also object to using the district’s student disciplinary processes. We have seen, in California and across the nation, that independent charter schools have used expulsions and suspensions as a way to “push out” underperforming students who may reduce an individual school’s testing averages or require additional resources. To prevent this, disciplinary procedures, including whether to use restorative justice methods, must be fair, transparent and equally established and implemented in all schools. Allowing charter operators to define their own processes is an invitation to discriminate and unfairly treat some students and families.
The charter operators also want changes to facilities policies. A recent study we commissioned, Spending Blind: The Failure of Planning in California’s Charter School Funding, brought together public data from California’s six main public financing programs to look at the broad patterns of how charter facility funding is being spent. The study found a lack of coordination with broader education policy, concentration of funding going to large charter school chains and that public funds were being used for schools that became private property – in some cases charging above market rate leases to the schools. Changes in facility policies should happen only after a thorough review of current practices and issues.
LAUSD’s charter authorization policies are widely regarded as a model of good governance and public oversight by charter authorizers across California. The district has many charter schools and all of them complied with the existing rules and procedures in previous authorizations. So, why now?
Perhaps because they believe that a supposedly “pro-charter” board of education would be more willing to let important things slide and loosen district oversight. Or that they don’t understand the critical role investigatory role of the inspector general. But that, hopefully, is a misreading of the new school board.
There’s nothing inconsistent with supporting the idea of charter schools that have unique offerings and also supporting robust, strong oversight and protections to make sure that every child can receive a high quality education and that taxpayer funds aren’t misspent. Flexibility is a good thing, but breaking something that works in the name of flexibility is simply “spin” in service of reduced transparency and accountability.