Academic journal article Education Next

ED Reform Battle in Los Angeles: Conflict Escalates as Charter Schools Thrive

Academic journal article Education Next

ED Reform Battle in Los Angeles: Conflict Escalates as Charter Schools Thrive

Article excerpt

THROUGHOUT THE 1990S and well into the new millennium, the massive Los Angeles Unified School District barely noticed the many charter schools that were springing up around the metropolis. But Los Angeles parents certainly took notice, and started enrolling their children. In 2008, five charter-management organizations announced plans to dramatically expand their school portfolios, and now more than 100,000 L.A. students attend independent charters (see Figure 1). Another 40,000 students are enrolled in dependent charters, which are created by the district and considered part of the district's portfolio of schools.

Many people, including some wealthy philanthropists, are eager to accelerate that growth, while the district--and the teachers union--want to rein it in. The conflict between the two camps has polarized not just families and educators but the entire city. And last fall, after someone leaked a private multimillion-dollar plan to vastly expand the number of charter schools in the district, the hostilities rose to new heights.

L.A. Unified, with an enrollment of 550,000, is the nation's second-largest school district, behind only New York City. The district sprawls over 720 square miles, more than half the size of Rhode Island. It includes not only the city of Los Angeles but 31 smaller municipalities as well. The only glue holding it all together is a web of clogged interstate freeways.

As spectacular as its sprawl is the size of its debt. L.A. Unified is saddled with $13 billion in unfunded pension and health-care-benefit liabilities. The district is one of the very few that still offers retirees and their dependents lifetime medical coverage. Because it has failed to set aside adequate funds to cover the costs involved, the district has no choice but to tap into its operating budget. The operating deficit, projected at $333 million for 2017-18, could exceed half a billion dollars by 2019-20 (see Figure 2).

So far, the district has failed to take decisive action toward putting its financial house in order. Although it has lost 100,000 students since 2006, the district has actually added teachers and other employees: the administrative staff grew 22 percent over the past five years, according to a district report released in May. With the decline in enrollment has come a drop in revenues: state aid is based on the number of students attending a district's schools.

Half of the enrollment decline stems from the rising popularity of the district's 228 independent charter schools. The other half has resulted from other factors: parents enrolling their children in private schools, families moving out of the city, and a decline in the birth-rate. Although champions of the district insist that charter schools are draining money--and some of the strongest students--from traditional schools, critics say the district's focus on charters is merely a strategic attempt to distract public attention from its own financial mismanagement.

When charters were first authorized by law in California in 1992, nobody--not school superintendents, not union leaders, not even charter advocates--imagined they would grow to their current scale: 1,230 schools statewide, with 80 new schools opened in the 2015-16 school year. L.A. has more charter schools than any district in the country. If you count dependent charters, the total rises from 228 schools to 282, representing 23 percent of the student population.

The waitlist for those 282 charter schools: 41,830 students.

The city's charter schools are popular because many of them are very good. Multiple studies suggest that L.A. charters are among the best in the nation at helping low-income minority students succeed in school (see Figure 3). The most thorough research comes from Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which in 2014 concluded that L.A. charter-school students, on average, gained the equivalent of 50 additional days of learning per year in reading and 79 additional days in math, compared to district school students. …

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