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.