A call from United Teachers Los Angeles for a moratorium on new charter schools, coming as the union's strike date nears, underscores deep-seated concerns about competing visions for the future of public school education.
There are now 244 independent but publicly funded charter schools within the boundaries of the Los Angeles Unified School District. By the union's count, that represents growth of more than 250 percent just over the past decade at a time when public school enrollment has been declining. The union contends this imposes a drain on the district of some $600 million.
"We're here because it's time to invest in existing schools," said union president Alex Caputo-Pearl, whose membership is at a negotiating impasse, many of its demands for such structural changes as decreased class size and additional professional staffing rebuffed by assertions the district cannot afford them.
The District has reserves, estimated in a fact-finding report at just under $2 billion. But LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner has said he fears that could be depleted in a handful of years.
In calling Friday for a cap on new charters in LAUSD's area, Caputo-Pearl insisted it is not a bargaining ploy, but a needed step to protect public education from "privatization."
The California Charter Schools Association issued the following statement: "A cap on charter schools won't solve the financial challenges before L.A. Unified. It will hurt the hundreds of thousands of kids who need great public schools the most, and the families who historically have struggled to access a free education that will help lift them up beyond their challenges and opens the doors of opportunity. Sacrificing their futures to deflect from the serious issues confronting public education financing at the core of UTLA’s demands is the wrong argument in the wrong venue. Let’s work together to solve problems big and small to ensure every child in California has a great public school. Our independent charter schools in Los Angeles serve students who are 88 percent Latinx and Black, 82 percent low-income, and 11 percent are students with disabilities, and they are learning more and attending college at higher rates. We must continue to support and invest in every public school that serves students well and hold schools accountable when they don't."
Previously, Beutner said, "All schools should be looked at with the same set of tough standards."
Under state law, districts are required to work with charter schools.
"Board of Education views charter schools as an integral method of achieving its vision and mission," reads a statement posted by LAUSD on the web page of its Charter Schools Division.
Several advocates for school choice voiced opposition to a charter cap. Charters offer superior alternatives for her daughter in their Sylmar area, said parent Roxann Nazario.
Publicly funded charter schools were green-lighted by California's legislature in 1992. Later legislation set a cap on their growth statewide at 100 new schools per year. Any changes to that would require legislative action.
At least one lawmaker has expressed a willingness to pursue the issue.
"There needs to be more transparency and accountability for charter schools," reads a statement from assembly member Patrick O'Donnell, D-Long Beach, Education Committee chair.
"I agree with our new Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond that a pause or slowing of the growth makes sense while we consider necessary charter school reforms to ensure student success and taxpayer accountability."
Within LAUSD, there is a smaller number of what are called "affiliated" charters, which operate under locally adopted plans, but rely on LAUSD staffing and personnel.
In many cases, independent charters are located on LAUSD property, but do their own hiring. Teachers at some of those charters have sought to be represented by UTLA, but it is a school by school effort with different employers, and so far only a fraction have been unionized.
In some cases, charter schools have also suffered in the competition or students. Caputo-Pearl pointed to the August closing of a second year charter academy in Eagle Rock just days into the current school year, leaving parents in need of making new arrangements.
Recent years have seen position on charters as a defining issue in races for school board seats. During his announcement Friday, Caputo-Pearl contended the District relations with the organization Great Public Schools Now reveal a preference for charters over traditional public schools.
GPSN has assisted funding of charter schools but has also funded the replication of traditional public schools, according to spokesman Jason Song, citing a $1.5 million commitment to a pair of LAUSD magnet schools that opened this past fall in South Los Angeles.
"Great Public Schools Now absolutely supports and funds LA Unified Schools that provide a high-quality education to students and a supportive workplace for teachers," Song stated. "GPSN would have welcomed additional applications, but UTLA representatives discouraged other high-quality schools from applying for funding."
If UTLA teachers in fact go strike on Jan. 10, it will be their first strike in three decades, dating back to the time before public charter schools existed.