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Are LAUSD’s Charter Schools Really Public Schools?

EASTSIDER-Are Charter Schools really public schools like they claim? It depends on your definition. And the recent UTLA strike isn’t going to resolve the issue. 

Let’s face it. One of the biggies at the heart of the UTLA Strike against the LAUSD are Charter Schools, even as they drain money from the rest of the system which then can’t afford to provide the staffing and support services our children desperately need. 

The current system has been nurtured and funded by the LAUSD Board majority and their recent Superintendents -- at least until Ref Rondriguez (my District), who was the third vote in a 3-2 Board in favor of Charter Schools, had to plead out to felonies and resign. One hopes for better. 

The History 

Back around 2010, I got involved with a local charter called The Los Feliz Charter School Through the Arts, which was moving from Los Feliz to the Media Center in Glassell Park. They were interested in making the transition into a new building and growing the student pool to become more inclusionary, using a teaching methodology which incorporated arts education as central to learning. 

Anyhow, I became a Board member, and ultimately their treasurer over the course of a couple of years. In those days, charter schools were much more regulated than they are now, which raises some interesting questions. For example, the oversight by the LAUSD was more rigorous, and generally the budget categories had to match up with the regular LAUSD public schools’ categories.  There were also periodic reviews by the District. 

The same was true of meetings, which had to be held under the Ralph M Brown open meetings act, with public agendas, 72-hour advance notice, and all the requirements that the School Board (and Neighborhood Councils) must follow. 

Also, the beginning, adopted budget and final adjusted budgets were reviewed by the LAUSD charter staff, including an annual review. So while there was a lot more flexibility in terms of how the charter could expend funds compared to a regular LAUSD school, there was a review both in terms of budget as well as student composition and achievement analysis. 

Full disclosure, I finally resigned over concerns that the Board had hired CCSA lawyers to represent them, was hiring a marginally qualified Superintendent, and was morphing into a private school using public funds. That model uses public money as a mere baseline and relies largely on parents voluntarily putting up supplemental contributions to cover the gap between what the ADA money is vs. their real budget needs. It’s still much cheaper than a real private school. 

I left the Board sometime in 2012, and it’s evident that these requirements have all changed over time, as the LAUSD Board has become more charter-centric. No reflection on the Los Feliz charter, since I’ve had no contact with them since 2012, and they well may have changed their fiscal and governance structures. Their idea was great. 

Evolution 

As the composition of the LAUSD Board shifted to a more charter-friendly majority, a number of the rules regarding their governance relaxed. For example, according to the LAUSD’s website, start-up charter schools can operate as fully independent entities. As the website indicates: 

“A start-up is a charter school that is created "from scratch" by any member of the public - educators, parents, foundations and others.” 

Further, they get to do their thing for up to five (5) years: 

“If approved, a charter is granted by the LAUSD Board of Education for a period of up to five years.” 

With the LAUSD’s pro-charter majority, this means that the self-appointed boards of these schools can essentially run the school as they see fit, with little if any supervision, and for up to five years before anyone looks at what they are doing. 

I know for a fact that a number of charter schools, for example, dream up ways to discriminate against “special needs” kids, because those pupils cost the most to educate. The Board can also set up any management structure they want, such as paying the superintendent big bucks and hiring a minimum of marginally qualified teachers at low wages to help pay for the top. 

And we all know the troubles that this deliberate lack of oversight and adherence to budgetary norms can cause. Under the pro-charter helm of John Deasy, we had the meltdown of the eight-school Magnolia Public Schools, which resulted in a total mess. As the blog laschoolreport.com noted: 

“The school closures followed a District audit that not only examined Magnolia Science Academy 6 and Academy 7, both high-performing schools, but also MPS as the parent group. The audit found among other things that MPS met the IRS definition of being “insolvent” as of June 2013, that it owed millions of dollars to the schools it oversees and that it transferred money between schools. It also found that it paid millions of dollars to a third party non-profit,

Accord, for educational services with little accountability.” 

Further, the founder and CEO of Celerity Educational Group in Koreatown, Velka Martiza McFarlane, embezzled something like $2.5 million dollars that took the multi-school entity down. You can read about her plea agreement here.  

And close to me in Eagle Rock, charter school IPUC iPrep Charter Academy suddenly closed its doors because of low enrollment (read broke). 

It was no coincidence that the school was a part of Ref Rodriguez’ charter group, and that Ref was at the time of his indictment, President of the LAUSD Board. Talk about having it both ways. 

I wrote about this mess at some length in the context of Tony Thurmond’s ultimately successful fight for Superintendent against charter school front Marshall Tuck. You can read the details here. 

The Takeaway 

The concern about charter schools has always been that they act as private schools using public funding. With a business model which has PTA type parent groups kicking in substantial money each year that public schools can’t match, they offer a relatively inexpensive private school education at half the cost or less. And all in hiding. 

Take openness and transparency. Most charters, the favored start-up types, no longer even have to comply with the Ralph M Brown Act, for goodness sake! Even the “advisory” Neighborhood Councils have to do this, and they don’t make decisions, only provide advice. 

You can read all about this at a First Amendment Coalition post.  

And while the pro-charter crowd will try to tell you differently, it ain’t so. Check out the website for the Charter School movement lawyers, CCSA. Go to the following link and see what it says:

“This is members-only content. For full access, sign in or become a member.” 

Content Summary 

Brief overview of the purpose of the Ralph M. Brown Act, which addresses the balance between public access to meetings of legislative bodies and the need for confidentiality by legislative bodies”

That says it all. 

In theory, charter schools can be cool, like the one I participated in back in the day when it was all new. They are not cool, however, when they get to write their own bylaws, set up their own structure, and get to run for five years with virtually no oversight regarding their finances or their very own operations -- via closed Board meetings. 

So, the strike may be over if UTLA ratifies the tentative agreement before you read this article, but the LAUSD Board and their maybe illegally hired Superintendent Austin Beutner, better get their act together. Our kids are at stake.

 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.