The Los Angeles Unified school board’s quick ratification Tuesday of a two-year teachers contract and then approval of a resolution asking the Legislature to adopt a temporary moratorium on charter schools in the district will go a long way toward restoring peace with United Teachers Los Angeles.
But the board’s actions also create challenges and tensions on two new fronts: with the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which is giving the district 45 days to show how the contract it called financially “not sustainable” will pencil out, and in Sacramento, where a charter moratorium would require an amendment to the state’s charter law. The idea will face opposition from a still-strong charter school lobby.
“There aren’t enough good schools in Los Angeles; the school board shouldn’t be limiting options for parents who want them,” said Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association.
The contract, resolving a six-day walkout by 30,000 teachers, grants a 6 percent raise to teachers and calls for spending $403 million to hire hundreds more nurses, counselors and librarians. It also calls for gradually lowering class sizes, which are frequently 38 to 40 students, over three years. But a county financial analysis of the contract’s impact, released only hours before the school board vote, found that the district’s near $2 billion in financial reserves this year would be spent down to $74 million in 2020-21, falling under the state’s 1 percent minimum reserve cushion, then mushroom to a $500 million deficit in 2021-22.
New spending under the contract would also divert hundreds of millions of dollars that the district had committed to improve achievement for low-income students, foster children and English learners under the Local Control Funding Formula. As a result, Los Angeles County Superintendent Debra Duardo ordered the district to amend its current budget accountability plan, known as the LCAP, and justify in a public hearing the changes in spending that parents and advocates had fought hard to win. In a letter to the school board, the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates and the ACLU of Southern California said the district still is obligated to spend $1.16 billion on high-needs students beyond across-the-board raises and staff additions.
Signal of a shift in charter support?
The school board’s passage of the charter school resolution with a 5-to-1 vote may be viewed as a bellwether for the state with the most charter schools in the nation, although board members emphasized that they were not voting for a ban on charter schools and that a moratorium would not affect existing charter schools.
“We’re not saying who is right or wrong; this is not to eliminate choice,” said board member Richard Vladovic, who introduced the resolution. After 27 years under the original charter law, “it’s time to step back, see what the effect was, then make good decisions.”
Superintendent Austin Beutner, whom UTLA had demonized during the walkout as pro-charter “privatizer,” supported the resolution — “It makes sense to pause while experts study the law at this point” — while reaffirming his support for “strong charters” and options for all students. Two board members who had been elected with financial support of charter school funders — President Monica Garcia and Kelly Gonez — backed it as well.
The lone opponent, Nick Melvoin, called a charter moratorium a “false dichotomy that leaves us scapegoating parents who have exercised the same right” of education choice that wealthy parents have had instead of addressing underlying “legacy costs” of pension and health obligations that are will eventually grow to half of the budget.
The resolution would apply only to Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, but teachers unions in Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified — districts with sizable proportions of students in charter schools — are already pressing to be included. Last week, the Oakland Unified school board passed a policy statement urge the state to grant relief by suspending new charter schools and renewals of existing charter schools in districts like Oakland and Los Angeles Unified, which county offices have certified as in fiscal danger. The board also called for restricting the ability of county offices and the State Board of Education to approve charter schools on appeal and requiring charter schools to share Oakland Unified’s cost of education students with disabilities.
The Legislature must now decide whether a moratorium makes sense, how long it should last and who it would apply to: just L.A. Unified, all districts on the state’s fiscal watch list or just districts with a lot of charter schools. By the California Charter Schools Association’s count, charter enrollment is 20 percent or more in 59 school districts of at least the median size of 1,927 students. (Go here to see the list.)
State Superintendent Tony Thurmond campaigned for a “pause” on new charter schools, and last week, he reiterated that in a statement for EdSource.
“Now is a good time for us to explore putting a pause on the growth of charter schools until we have time to assess where we are financially in regards to the fiscal impact of charter schools on our districts,” he said. “With that said, there are charter schools all over the state that are providing the best learning environment for the students they serve, but opening any new schools without providing new resources is a threat to the success of those new schools and existing public schools.”
Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, said Wednesday “students are being negatively impacted by an unfettered Wild West charter environment” and it is “time we updated the charter law.” Any changes should consider charter schools’ financial impact on school districts and demand that they be more accountable and transparent. But he said the CTA is not yet pushing a specific bill or seeking a legislator to sponsor it.
Other state leaders and education groups are being more circumspect.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has promised to reintroduce open meeting and conflict of interest requirements for charter schools that former Gov. Jerry Brown had resisted, but he has taken no position on a charter moratorium. The California School Boards Association repeated Newsom’s call for more transparency but declined comment on a charter moratorium.
Edgar Zazueta, senior director, Policy and Governmental Relations, for the Association of California School Administrators, said the association’s position on a charter school “pause” or moratorium will likely depend on the details of any proposed legislation. Curbs on charter school growth should be considered, he said, but the association is “not yet convinced that a statewide cap on charter schools is the right policy solution at this time. We are worried it could have unintended consequences for some of our communities.”
UTLA’s original demand for a resolution supporting a “cap on new charter schools” in L.A. Unified became a sticking point to ending the strike, but Beutner agreed to take a proposal to the school board to consider. The version that the board approved, with language that Vladovic massaged, calls for an eight- to 10-month moratorium.
During that time, the resolution states, the California Department of Education, Newsom and Thurmond would study and recommend reforms. They would examine charter schools’ impacts on district finances and the effects on district schools that are required to share space with charter schools — a continuing source of tension. Los Angeles has 227 charter schools, although only about a third have sought access to district facilities, to which they have a legal right.
Current law prohibits school boards from considering the financial impact of a charter school when reviewing new or renewal applications. UTLA has blamed the loss of state revenue from the 110,000 students attending charter schools — about 20 percent of students living within the district — as the chief cause of L.A Unified’s financial plight. However, the district, like many others, also faces rising employee pension costs, higher special education expenses, and enrollment declines unrelated to charter schools. L. A. Unified also provides generous and expensive health benefits for all retirees and their dependents, which only a handful of districts in the state offer, annually consuming $300 million of the $7 billion district budget.