Board Wants LAUSD To Work With Charters To Revamp Policies

 Board Member Richard Vladovic

Board Member Richard Vladovic

Part of LAUSD’s process for determining whether petitions from charter schools get approved and renewed and how they are overseen by the district was supposed to include input from charter leaders on a group called the Charter Schools Collaborative.

That hasn’t really happened.

When the Board passed these guidelines on authorizing and oversight policies and procedures for charters in 2010, it directed the LAUSD superintendent to form the Collaborative to work with the district to regularly update what is described as a “living document, subject to periodic review and consideration.”

The Collaborative, however, has not met to revise these policies in five years, even though the state law on charter schools is now out of date -- citing API scores that no longer exist -- and the number of LAUSD charter schools has grown during that time from 185 to 224.

Board Members Ref Rodriguez (BD5) and Richard Vladovic (BD7) hope to change that with a resolution they are introducing Tuesday to revive the Charter Schools Collaborative to work with the district to recommend updates to the authorizing policy.

“I believe that it’s time for us to come together and look at the policy overall and see: Does it still fit our context?” Rodriguez told Speak UP. “As long as I’ve been on the Board, there have been issues that have come up when we are approving and renewing charters that we haven’t really had concrete answers for.”

Some charters, for instance, receive certain conditions for renewal called “benchmarks,” while others do not. The goal of their resolution, Rodriguez said, is to make sure that the policies are “transparent and consistent” and that the primary focus is on student academic achievement.

“I don’t believe the charter division is capricious in terms of the way that they look at it, but as a Board member, I have seen inconsistencies,” Rodriguez said. “I just want there to be consistency so that no one thinks that the district is not being fair.”

Another issue that came up this year was the denial of a charter high school based on only a single year of 11th grade state testing data. Rodriguez wants to make sure schools that only have one year of standardized test data are evaluated fairly and that LAUSD’s Charter Schools Division staff considers other data the school itself said that it would collect in the charter petition the Board approved.

Likewise, Rodriguez hopes the group will come up with three or four consistent criteria by which all schools will be evaluated. Right now, LAUSD often compares charters up for renewal to what it calls “similar schools,” but the criteria and choice of similar schools can seem arbitrary.

“There is sort of this confusion among the charter operators around how they determine what the similar schools are,” Rodriguez says. “Sometimes there’s a list of similar schools, and they’re like, ‘I’m in Watts and that school’s in the Northwest San Fernando Valley. How are they similar?’ We want to actually have some policy and guidelines for establishing what the similar schools are so folks are really clear about that.”

If the resolution passes on April 10, the goal would be to create a new charter authorizing policy by the end of June. “We want something now to start in July so that folks are clear moving into renewing their charters this year,” he said.

 Board Member Ref Rodriguez

Board Member Ref Rodriguez

The Charter Schools Collaborative that this resolution would revive is not to be confused with a smaller working group of charter school leaders that has been working with the district since the fall to update District Required Language that charters must include in their petitions. That smaller group will present a list of current policies to the Board for a vote Tuesday, but those policies have not actually been updated or revised. Tuesday’s vote merely locks in place the current set of policies and prevents LAUSD staff at the Charter Schools Division from revising them unilaterally without Board approval.

Rodriguez said that some of the same charter leaders in the smaller working group may be a part of the Collaborative, but “we see the Collaborative as a much larger group with members having both experience and some real strong perspectives on certain issues.”

Some of those directly affect parents, such as issues preventing students attending a charter elementary school from automatically matriculating to the same charter organization’s middle school, if the two schools have separate charters. It would also address sibling admission preferences to ensure that all charters are able to take advantage of them.

Other outstanding questions are whether and how the Rodriguez-Vladovic resolution would work in concert with another resolution being voted on April 10. That resolution, being introduced by Board Members Kelly Gonez (BD6), George McKenna (BD1) and Nick Melvoin (BD4), would create a school rating system for all district and charter schools – the first step toward an accountability framework for all LAUSD schools, regardless of model.

That Gonez-McKenna-Melvoin resolution would form a much broader working group of parents, district representatives, charters and labor leaders to help create a system that its authors envision would inform charter renewal, as well as school choices.  

“I think it’s fabulous what they’re doing,” Rodriguez said. “We think because the Division of Instruction is going to oversee both of these things, that there’s a nice way to marry the two. There is a bullet point in our resolution that says whatever we come up with here in this policy around renewals and measuring achievement for charters could be used as a framework for evaluating our own district schools. I believe that there’s a way to marry these two that holds all of our schools accountable and allows us to be extremely transparent to the public about accountability. And more than anything, it allows us to say that we’re not holding the charters to a higher standard than our own schools. We are holding the same high standard, actually.”

Because the Charter Schools Collaborative would likely finish its recommendations in June, Rodriguez said those recommendations could potentially inform the work of the Gonez-Mckenna-Melvoin-generated working group, which isn’t slated to finish its work until September. Nevertheless, some questions remain about data points that might be included in a rating system that would apply to district schools – such as the number of must-place teachers – that simply are not a factor at most independent charter schools with at-will employees.

Melvoin envisions a potentially customizable search tool to help parents make informed schools choices. Charter leaders, however, want to ensure that their renewals are based on clear criteria focusing primarily on academic achievement, and they hope that requirements of any new rating system won’t bury them in data-related paperwork that could take their focus off of educating kids. 

Rodriguez said he’s submitting revised language on his resolution to create “guardrails” to ensure that high-performing schools are not being denied renewal based on softer school climate criteria. “The law says student achievement is primary, and we want that to be part of this policy because that’s what the law says,” Rodriguez added.

He also hopes his resolution will streamline the annual charter oversight process, which examines student achievement, fiscal health, operations and governance. “We’ve been getting complaints at the Board level about the oversight that’s cumbersome and very bureaucratic,” he said. “There are binders and binders being put together for the annual oversights. So what I’d like the group to discuss and come up with, is there a way to do oversight of our schools that puts them on a tiered system so the schools that have done well the year before, maybe all we’re doing is looking at one or two areas instead of all four?” 

Rodriguez, who used to run a charter school network before getting elected to the Board, also wants to make sure that all documents can be submitted electronically. “Even as an operator, I remember that we used to submit things to the charter division, and then they couldn’t find them, and they said we didn’t submit them so we’d have to send them again or prove through email that it was sent on a certain date. When you’re dealing with paper and a bureaucracy, things are going to get lost. We just want a system that protects [against] that. Somebody shouldn’t have to leave a school site and drive to [LAUSD's] Beaudry [headquarters] on a certain day to get something in. It’s a waste of resources. It’s unfair to kids.”

Finally, Rodriguez wants the Collaborative to examine the staffing levels at the Charter Schools Division, and he wants to make sure that a portion of the charter oversight fees are being put toward one of the primary purposes for which charter schools were created: to share best practices with district schools.

Rodriguez said that working closely with Vladovic -- while Melvoin and Gonez are working on their resolution with McKenna -- “signals what I hope folks on the outside are seeing: that this Board wants to work together. We really do want to work together. This polarization, the Board majority, whatever that means, that isn’t real. There is collaboration happening, and I think it’s important to showcase that.”