Charter schools, LAUSD reach deal to end 'game of chicken' that jeopardized schools' futures

Charter school students and supporters from Options for Youth await a special board meeting on charter schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at LAUSD Headquarters.
Charter school students and supporters from Options for Youth await a special board meeting on charter schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at LAUSD Headquarters.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Last week, Los Angeles Unified School District officials asked the district’s school board to vote to deny 14 charter schools the permission they need to open or to remain open — an unprecedented number of charter denials for a single year, let alone a single board meeting.

Now, ahead of that vote on Tuesday, top L.A. Unified officials are prepared to reverse themselves and recommend the board approve 11 of those 14 charter applications after reaching a deal with leading charter school representatives, according to three sources with knowledge of the negotiations.

These sources asked not to be identified to avoid jeopardizing the deal, which still requires the approval of the L.A. Unified School Board, which is set to meet on Tuesday.

Asked about the sources’ information, school district spokeswoman Barbara Jones wrote late Monday: “We have no comment.”

Charter schools receive public money and are run mostly by non-profit organizations, not school districts. But educators need the permission of a school district or some other “authorizer” in order to start a charter school. To stay in operation, they must convince that authorizer to “renew” their charters every three to five years.

In L.A. Unified, which has more charters than any other district in the U.S., many charter school leaders have grown frustrated with some of the rules and regulations that district officials expect every charter school to follow, known as the “district-required language.” Thirteen charters initially refused to follow this language, risking having their applications denied by the board on Tuesday. 

But under a compromise these three sources described to KPCC, top L.A. Unified officials would grant charters some, but not all of the changes to the "district-required language" that they'd initially sought — and district officials will also reverse their denial recommendations for 11 of the 13 schools that had initially refused to follow this language.

If approved, under the deal, L.A. Unified staff will no longer hand down a list of district mandates for charters to follow; instead, the list will be set by the school board and will eventually apply to every charter school in the district, the sources told KPCC.

Charter leaders would likely consider this provision of the deal a win: district staff would give up some authority to unilaterally set its charter regulations. Instead, the arrangement would give the school board final say over those regulations — and since four of the seven board members were endorsed by charter school groups, charter school leaders may be more likely to feel they have allies in those talks.

If approved, district officials will walk away with a victory as well, the sources said: the charter schools agreed to drop demands that the district argued would limit the role of L.A. Unified’s internal investigator, the Office of the Inspector General, in the oversight of charter schools. The office currently has broad authority — including subpoena power — to sniff out "waste, fraud and abuse" in L.A. Unified, and has investigated several prominent charter school cases.

Though the sources said 11 denial recommendations would be reversed, they also said two schools will still be recommended for denial due to other concerns. The denial recommendation for a fourteenth school will not change, the sources said.

Even before this deal, Tuesday’s vote had the potential to be a defining moment for this group of L.A. Unified school board members.

Handing out a dozen charter denials in a single day was not likely to please the pro-charter donors who had endorsed four of the school board's seven members and who spent record amounts on last spring's school board elections. But in the past, when L.A. Unified staff has recommended approvals and denials for charter applications, board members have been unwilling to overrule them. Just last month, they voted down another charter school’s request for flexibility from the “district-required language.”

And then there are the ongoing questions about Ref Rodriguez, the L.A. Unified board member who faces criminal charges connected to his 2015 run for office; he's pleaded not guilty to those charges. Rodriguez also faces an internal investigation at the charter school he co-founded over possible conflicts of interest; through an attorney, he's denied wrongdoing. On Monday, the union representing L.A. Unified teachers called on Rodriguez to recuse himself from any votes on the charter applications Tuesday.

But the deal could elevate the importance of Tuesday's vote. If approved, the deal sources describe would allow this L.A. Unified board to put its stamp on what charter oversight in L.A. will look like for years to come.

With negotiations on the deal complete, the sources said L.A. Unified officials will now recommend approving 11 applications from charter schools, including:

The sources said L.A. Unified officials will recommend approving one of the renewal applications from the Magnolia network of charter schools — for Magnolia Science Academy 4 in Bell.

The deal also resulted in an outcome leaders of another group of charter schools had desired: leaders of the KIPP network of charter schools had initially challenged many of the same district rules as the other schools — but, unlike the other schools, KIPP did not challenge the district's definition of the L.A. Unified Inspector General's role.

Because of that willingness to consent to the authority of the district's Inspector General, district officials had been willing to recommend approval of seven KIPP applications on Tuesday — but with odd conditions that would've forced KIPP's schools to agree to almost every other element of the "district-required language" that they'd been challenging.

Under terms of the deal, sources said the district will remove those terms and recommend unconditional approval for KIPP's six charter renewals and KIPP's petition to open a new school.

But the district will still recommend denying another Magnolia school’s renewal petition, for Magnolia Science Academy 5 in Reseda, the sources said. They'll also still recommend denial for the North Valley Military Institute. In both cases, district officials had initially raised concerns beyond the “district-required language."

International Studies Leadership Academy, which did not challenge the “district-required language,” will also still be up for denial, the sources said; L.A. Unified’s recommendation was based on other concerns.