Tax Spending Without Representation

 GHCHS.jpgCharter schools allow parents, teachers and the community to transform our public school system.”

-California Charter School Association

As Eli Broad prepares to implement his plan “to reach 50 percent charter market share” within the LAUSD, now is the time for Angelenos to begin asking what this privately controlled system would look like. While Broad claims that his takeover of public education will bring an “expansion of high-quality charter schools in Los Angeles,” is there any proof that existing charter schools have reached this standard of excellence? Do charter schools help to “ensure that no Los Angeles student remains trapped in a low-performing school,” or would this expanded network of publicly funded private schools continue to cherry-pick the easiest to teach students who are more likely to increase their school’s reported test scores. Most importantly, do these schools actually want “parents [who] are effectively engaged” or will their right to elect representatives to the governing boards be revoked once these schools are established?

The LAUSD “already has more than 200 charters, the most of any school system in the country,” which provides plenty of examples of how these types of schools are operated and what should be expected from Broad’s private school district. One example is Granada Hills Charter High School (GHCHS), which bills itself as “the largest single education reform effort in the country.” The school shows its willingness to play loose with statistics when it says that it “serves nearly 4,500 families.” The official school profile states that it only has 4,300 students, so unless it bans siblings from attending the school together, the claim of 4,500 families seems to be exaggerated.

While the California Department of Education reports that the LAUSD has 164,349 English Learners or 25.4% of its total enrollment of 646,683 students, GHCHS has 146 or 3.4% of its population. This is down from the  291 English learners it served when it converted to a charter in 2003. The California Charter School Association says that “charter schools understand their responsibility to serve all students and are committed to serving students with exceptional needs.” GHCHS serves 301 of these students, or 7% of its population, including those with 504 plans, who usually “spend the entire day in a general education classroom,” but require an accommodation to deal with a disability. By comparison, the LAUSD serves 82,759 special education students or 12.7% of its total population. GHCHS is also run by a governing board that is no longer democratically elected and, therefore, does not give parents, teachers or community members a formal say in how the school operates.

When GHCHS was first converted from a LAUSD run school to a charter it was done so with the promise of allowing the “community to be more actively involved.” In its first charter renewal application, it was able to legitimately state that its “governing structure is designed to foster participation by all stakeholders,” as these stakeholders were represented on a democratically elected governing board. As described in their charter, this board consisted of four teachers, one classified staff member, two parents and one administrator. They were all selected in an election of their peers. This governing structure would not survive.

The next charter renewal application had some positive changes, especially the addition of a student member selected “by the GHCHS Student Council and Advisor.” While this student was not given a vote, at least a step was taken towards giving the students a formal voice. Three At Large representatives were also added to the board as “community member[s],” though they did “not necessarily have to reside within the GHCHS attendance boundaries.” These were also not elected positions, but were instead appointed by the board itself, along with a newly created Retired Teacher position. Parents lost one seat on the board and were denied the right to vote for this representative as the remaining post was converted to an appointed position. The teacher representatives were still elected by their peers, but reduced from four seats to two.

When GHCHS submitted its last charter renewal in 2013, the school became even less democratic when it specified that the non-voting  student representative had to be “approved by the Executive Director.” While this was supposed to be the only change to the makeup of the governing board, it looks very different today:

2015 Governing Board Members

Jim Salin - At Large/Community

Leila Vickers - At Large/Community

Joan Lewis - At Large/Community

Jody Dunlap - At Large/Community

Lorene Dixon - At Large/Community

Steve Bourgouin - Retired Teacher

Sonja Brown - Parent

All elected teacher representatives and the classified employee representative were eliminated in a board meeting on December 15, 2014,  after the charter had been renewed by the LAUSD School Board. While a representative from the state’s Charter Schools Division states that “changes in [a charter school’s] governance relating to the composition and/or qualifications of members of their board of directors” “would require a material revision,” and, therefore, require approval from the LAUSD, the District’s Charter Schools Division (CSD) refuses to hold the school that it is supposed to regulate to this standard. The Specialist assigned to the school, Alex Gomez, states that the CSD “determined that the 2014 change to the composition of Granada’s Board was not a material revision to the charter,” and did not submit it to the LAUSD Board for approval. With that action, the school was allowed to eliminate any democratically elected person to oversee its operations or participate in its decision making. The school is receiving taxpayer money, but the taxpayers have no control of how this money is spent.

As the chartering authority, the LAUSD has taken on the responsibility for ensuring that GHCHS conforms to the terms of its charter and can revoke this charter for “a material violation of the charter” or “violations of the law.” Unfortunately, this issue provides another example where the CSD is more interested in being a cheerleader for the charter industry than the regulator it is supposed to be. This is not a surprising outcome given that  its director, José Cole-Gutiérrez, previously “served as general manager for the Los Angeles region of the California Charter Schools Association.” This is the equivalent of staffing the California Public Utilities Commission with former employees of the utilities it is supposed to regulate. It is time for the School Board to take action and replace the management of the CSD with a staff who understand their function is to serve the students of the District instead of the managers of charter schools.

The education code also gives the District “the right to appoint a single representative to the GHCHS governing board,” but it has not availed itself of this opportunity. In failing to doing so, it cedes ground to those who seek to privatize our education system and denies taxpayers the representation that they deserve. The District has also missed an opportunity to bypass the school’s attempt to silence alternative voices by using this seat to appoint a parent, teacher or classified employee to the board who is not beholden to the school’s governing board. Four of the seven members of the LAUSD Board were elected despite opposition from the charter schools. They, therefore, have the votes to demand an appropriate appointment for this and all other charter school governing boards as a way of demanding accountability and representation.