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County greenlights Aspire charter schools after LA school board denial

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The Los Angeles County Board of Education approved Aspire Public Schools' petition to renew two charter schools which the Los Angeles Unified school board had declined in February.

"By renewing our charters for Aspire Ollin University Preparatory Academy and Aspire Antonio Maria Lugo Academy, the [county] board has ensured has ensured the students and families in Huntington Park will continue to have access to high-quality public education," Aspire CEO James Willcox said in a statement.

The two schools will now fall under the oversight of the county office instead of L.A. Unified.

The majority of L.A. Unified board members took issue with Aspire's decision on how to use the school's special education funds. Instead of paying L.A. Unified for its programs — such as  dyslexia services, speech generating devices and training and emotional disorder psychiatric care — Aspire contracts with El Dorado County Charter, near Sacramento.

Without Aspire's participation, L.A. Unified's special education program has less money to spread around.

"Denying a charter based on its failure to contribute revenue to the general fund of the sponsoring district violates" the education code, L.A. county Department of Education documents state.

Aspire would not comment as to whether cost was a factor in selecting El Dorado.

Members of L.A. Unified's board said their decision came down to ensuring quality.

"The Division of Special Education and the Office of General Counsel believe that the District cannot ensure that the charter school participating in an out-of-District [special education service] is offering a sound educational program for students with disabilities," read a staff report presented to the L.A. Unified board.

But, district officials said they had no reason to believe El Dorado's services were inferior.

Special education students at both schools have improved in English and Math, according to district reports.

Of the two charter schools, Ollin serves fewer special education students than the L.A. Unified average and Lugo serves more, according to state data. The state does not break out special education students by severity or type of disability by individual schools.

But a look at area special education programs provides insight into the types of students served by Aspire.

According to an Aspire spokeswoman, Ollin University Preparatory Academy and Aspire Antonio Maria Lugo Academy each serve one visually and one hearing impaired student.

L.A. Unified's program serves many highly disabled students, including those with visual or hearing impairments, multiple disabilities, and orthopedic or brain injuries which require highly-specialized, costly care.

Opponents to charters often argue the schools skim the best students from an area, leaving those who are more expensive or more difficult to educate in the traditional public schools.

Like health insurance, pooling special ed resources is supposed to offset the cost of extremely high needs students whose care can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ollin and Lugo are two of  Aspire's 37 schools, most of which are located in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Aspire CEO James Willcox. KPCC regrets the error. 

This story has been updated.