Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource Today

It landed like a bombshell last summer, a leaked plan to double the number of charter schools in Los Angeles Unified and students attending them over the next eight years. It talked of raising half a billion dollars from foundations and high-wealth donors to get it done, all with the idea of improving the quality of education for low-income students.

What wasn’t a shock was who was behind it: Eli Broad, an L.A.-based philanthropist and leading force in national education reform. Nor was it a surprise how district officials reacted, accusing Broad of aiming to destroy public education in the city by turning children into market shares. Los Angeles already has more charter schools, about 230, than any other school district in the country.

In the nine months since the leak, much has changed. The so-called “Broad plan” has morphed into an organization called Great Public Schools Now, which is keeping the focus on improving education quality but aiming to achieve it with a bigger toolbox.

“The original intent hasn’t changed,” said the group’s new executive director, Myrna Castrejón, a former lobbyist with the California Charter Schools Association. “What has changed is a greater refinement of the idea, replicating schools that are working well, any kind of schools, and prioritizing them for kids most in need.”

As for specific goals as originally posed? Forget them, Castrejón said. It’s all a work in progress. Yes, it could mean more charter schools, she said, but it could also mean new magnet schools, pilot schools, even teacher-led schools that provide more instructional autonomy.

And fundraising has only begun, she said, a suggestion that the original $490 million target remains far distant. “So far, it’s been very encouraging,” she said. “It’s not chump change, but it’s not $490 million, either.”

Whether the shift in approach represents a sincere effort to involve the school district or a strategy to blunt intense criticism from defenders of traditional public education, or maybe both, Castrejón says the group intends to examine district schools that are excelling and replicate their efforts in low-income areas of Los Angeles where academic performance is lagging.

But whatever the approach, the obstacles are formidable. For one, the L.A. Unified school board is aligned against the new group. The seven members voted unanimously in January to oppose any effort that would drive down enrollment, draining district resources, through “external initiatives.”

While the vote was largely symbolic in that state education code sets a high bar for districts to deny charter applications and renewals, the board has nonetheless stopped approving charters with the same frequency as before the Broad plan was made public.

Nor does the board stand alone in opposition. Before the vote, leaders of all the district’s labor unions appeared together to express solidarity in supporting the resolution. The teachers union website still includes a prominent picture of Eli Broad beside the words “Billionaires must stop.”

Castrejón, who has been on the job less than a month, said she has had several conversations with the district’s new superintendent, Michelle King, and found her to be receptive to at least discussing new avenues to elevate academic performance. At a recent community meeting, King said she would like to meet with leaders of non-traditional schools to discuss new strategies.

Encouraged as she was by the superintendent’s openness, Castrejón said she was still mindful of the difficult political landscape. Only two of the board’s seven members  Ref Rodriguez and Monica García — are recognized as charter school allies. The other five have won election with support from the teachers union.

And a brief conversation with the teachers union president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, left her doubtful she would win his support no matter how plans unfold. “I’m not holding my breath that I changed his perception,” she said.

Other challenges for the work ahead include finding teachers to work in whatever new schools are created, building community support and locating facilities to reduce the need for charters to share space with traditional schools as Proposition 39 allows.

“A lot depends on the fundraising,” she said.

For now, Great Public Schools Now remains in its infancy. It has a board chairman, Bill Siart, founder of ExED, a nonprofit that supports charter schools administration. It has plans to announce the entire seven-member board this week.

And it has an executive director who is working out of a rental car until June, when she plans to move to Los Angeles from Sacramento and to find a downtown office to put the plan in motion — whatever shape it may take.

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  1. Ronel Kelmen Wright 3 years ago3 years ago

    By design, charter schools' best practices were to serve as examples that traditional public schools could implement, leading to improved outcomes for students. If such practices have been found in LAUSD-approved charters over the years, I wonder why we educators haven't been informed of them, or even heard of an LAUSD school that turned itself around after applying charter best practices. Pilot schools and magnets are other choices, but to compare apples to … Read More

    By design, charter schools’ best practices were to serve as examples that traditional public schools could implement, leading to improved outcomes for students. If such practices have been found in LAUSD-approved charters over the years, I wonder why we educators haven’t been informed of them, or even heard of an LAUSD school that turned itself around after applying charter best practices. Pilot schools and magnets are other choices, but to compare apples to apples, one needs to look at actual local neighborhood public schools.

    What I’ve seen in my 12+ years in education regarding charters is this:
    (1) Parental involvement is necessary to enroll a child into a charter, so students with less-aware or less-involved parents, or no parents [e.g., those living in group homes] likely will be very under-represented at charter schools;
    (2) Some charter schools require ongoing parental involvement during the school day, making it more likely that parents with lower-wage jobs can afford to take time off work to fulfill such requirements, and thus students from such families will be under-represented at charter schools;
    (3) Usually, about a month or so after the start of a semester, students who have been unsuccessful academically will re-enroll in their local public school after being “counseled out”–an academic poractice that regular public schools can use to steer students into continuation schools only in more limited circumstances;
    (4) Students with behavior problems will be “counseled out” and re-enroll in their local public school–a practice that regular public schools (to the best of my knowledge) are not permitted to take unless such students pose a severe risk of harm to others.

    Are there any charter success stories for schools with relatively large proportions of students with disabilities, or students who have endured serious trauma? According to a figure I was quoted recently, 34% of the students at the school where I work have IEPs. In addition to those who identified as emotionally disturbed, there also are many more whose non-school history tends to lead them to make irresponsible choices, both academically and behaviorally. Yet we do not have sufficient funding for a full-time special ed coordinator, full-time social workers, a full-time psychologist, additional Pupil Services and Attendance support, etc. Of course, that doesn’t even count the paucity of available elective courses for students.

    If Ms. Castrejon, Mr. Broad, and other individuals and organizations with money to spend on education were truly interested in improving education, they would sponsor grants for existing schools to fund desperately-needed programs and services over a realistic number of years in which to expect change to be demonstrated (probably not less than 5), and then actually share the results with those who can benefit from such knowledge.