The Absurdity of Charter School Oversight in L.A.

This is about the fact that they want to kill our charters and nothing more.

-Magnolia CEO Caprice Young

“The sky is falling.”

-Chicken Little

As usual, the LAUSD Board spent a significant portion of their time at Tuesday’s meeting ignoring the needs of students enrolled in District schools so they could focus on charter issues. At this meeting, held at a time set aside to ensure maximum convenience for the charters, one new charter “was approved, another was allowed to expand and three others were renewed.” However, most of the focus has been on Magnolia and Celerity for the rejection of their renewal petitions and El Camino Real Charter High School (ECRCHS) for narrowly avoiding advancement in the charter revocation process.

Last year, the charter industry invested “nearly $2.3 million” in “the nation’s most expensive school board elections” to ensure that they were free from the inconvenience of oversight. While the California Charter School Association (CCSA) has stated that they “are deeply concerned that this month District staff have recommended more charter renewal [denials] and material revision denials than they have in the last five years combined”, the recommendations against Magnolia and Celerity should not have been a surprise or seen as a change in policy. In 2014, the Board voted against two other Magnolia campuses “for fiscal mismanagement and a slew of other accounting irregularities.” Celerity had two charter renewal petitions rejected last November. The Board’s interest in the “financial shenanigans” at ECRCHS is a little more surprising, especially since their charter was renewed last year with at least two Notices to Cure outstanding. However, the publicity provided by the Los Angeles Daily News investigative reports most likely made the irregularities more difficult to ignore.

The is no way that the allegations against any of these charters could be considered nit-picking. Neither the LAUSD Charter School Division (CSD) nor the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) felt that Magnolia was providing all of the information that was requested of them. It is important to note that Magnolia had agreed to let FCMAT audit their operations to settle a previous dispute with the LAUSD over the renewal of some of their other charters. The organization holding the charter for Celerity was accused of being a shell. According to CSD testimony at the Board meeting, the Governing Board is controlled by a third party which refuses to cooperate in any way with LAUSD’s oversight. Up until reaching a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the District just prior to the meeting, ECRCHS had refused to terminate their principal after he was caught charging expensive meals, $95 bottles of wine, first class airfare and personal charges on the school’s credit card. Interestingly, the Governing Board was also accused of violating California’s Brown Act, which they appear to have done again when they appointed a team to negotiate the MOU at their meeting on Monday night even though this issue did not appear on their published agenda.

For some reason, the CCSA found it relevant to their case to constantly repeat the statistic “that L.A. Unified has approved 155 of 159 charter renewals over the last five years” as a reason to approve all of the petitions before it on Tuesday. However, past incompetence should not be used as an excuse to continue along the current course. Every taxpayer in the state should wonder why the approval rate is not even lower. Charters were supposedly created to allow public schools to have the freedom to test new education methods. If these methods are really cutting-edge but untested, these experiments will not always be successful. Yet the LAUSD finds that 155 of 159 schools (97.48%) are having the expected positive results and should routinely have their charters renewed. This near-perfect outcome suggests that these schools are not really as innovative as they are supposed to be or the District is not effectively monitoring their progress.

The Board has also not provided the infrastructure to adequately watch over the public funds that these privately run schools receive. The CSD is lead by a former staff member of the CCSA who views the charters as partners. When the CSD issues a Notice to Cure, the District does not require that the parents of the school be notified of the action. They also do not require that the Governing Boards of charters include elected representatives of the stakeholders. With this lack of oversight, can the public really be confident that ECRCHS is the only charter without sufficient fiscal controls?

To be fair, the ability of the LAUSD to provide oversight is limited by a charter law that was not well thought out and a governor who has vetoed any attempt to tighten control. Board Member Scott Schmerelson has expressed surprise and frustration that charters can only be renewed for a period of five years, even if a shorter term would allow the Board to ensure that promised changes in the administration of a charter were, in fact, made. The statutory deadlines for approving renewal petitions often means that Board members must make their decisions without receiving all of the information that they need because delaying the vote will mean that the charter is automatically renewed.

The next stops for Magnolia and Celerity will be the Los Angeles County Board of Education and the State Department of Education where they will get to appeal LAUSD’s decisions. If successful at either of these venues, responsibility for oversight will shift to the agency that signs off on the renewal. Board member Ref Rodriguez showed little confidence in the reports generated by the CSD when he expressed concern that the LAUSD’s decision would be overturned, I think the District should welcome an outside body performing oversight. They could then spend more time at their meetings focusing on the students of the LAUSD.