Controversy Surrounds Largest Charter School System in Los Angeles

The largest charter school experiment in the nation has reached a plateau as Los Angeles charter leaders now struggle to maintain their schools. 

Facing stringent new policies, declining enrollment, and an unfriendly district school board, the charter school sector in Los Angeles finds itself in uncharted territory, according to operators. 

Los Angeles, which boasts the highest number of charter school students in any city in the country, recently prohibited charters from using nearly half of its school buildings, amidst a backdrop of dwindling enrollment citywide. 

Enrollment is dwindling across the Los Angeles educational landscape, with district schools witnessing more significant declines compared to charter schools. 

L.A. is set to resume its charter renewal process later this year after a pandemic-induced three-year hiatus, leveraging a state law that aims to expedite the closure of underperforming charter schools. 

Applications for new charter schools in Los Angeles have plummeted, in stark contrast to previous years when a dozen applications would annually flood L.A. Unified, as reported by the California Charter Schools Association. 

KIPP SoCal Public Schools, one of the largest charter networks in Los Angeles, will be shutting down three campuses this year due to declining admissions. 

“We’re on the verge of a fresh start,” remarked Joanna Belcher, chief impact officer for KIPP SoCal, which currently manages 23 charter schools. 

“Previously, the focus in L.A., particularly in terms of education reform, was on expansion,” Belcher stated. “However, our emphasis now is not on growth.”

Belcher emphasized that the network is redirecting its efforts towards ensuring the continued operation of existing schools and fulfilling its commitment to provide high-quality options for families seeking excellent educational opportunities. 

To achieve these objectives, KIPP SoCal is actively working on facilitating post-COVID academic recovery, attracting and retaining skilled staff, and enhancing teaching methods based on feedback from graduates. 

Charter schools currently constitute approximately 20% of the district’s enrollment, catering to over 150,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade across 275 schools. 

Enrollment in charter schools peaked in 2021, with nearly 168,000 students enrolled in city charters. Subsequently, admissions have fallen by almost 11%, albeit at a slower rate compared to district schools.  

Over the years, L.A. Unified has witnessed a decline in enrollment from 639,337 students in the 2015-2016 academic year to 538,295 students in 2023, reflecting a drop of nearly 16%. 

The drop in enrollment in Los Angeles is attributed to various factors such as a decreasing birth rate, families relocating out of the city, and a rising preference for homeschooling. 

The closure of KIPP schools is part of a trend where several charter schools in Los Angeles have shut down in recent years due to declining enrollment, mirroring a broader issue affecting the entire city. 

While charters face closure due to shrinking enrollment, L.A. Unified, possessing significantly more resources than independently operated charters, has managed to avoid shutting down traditional public schools, although Superintendent Alberto Carvalho hinted at the possibility. 

Keith Dell’Aquila, vice president of greater Los Angeles local advocacy at the California Charter Schools Association, attributed the reluctance to open new charter schools in L.A. Unified to the district’s new colocation policy, which restricts charters from numerous city campuses. 

According to Dell’Aquila, there have been no petitions to establish new charter schools within the district this year. 

The situation was not always as it is now. 

L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, was at the forefront of charter school adoption, converting its initial school to a charter establishment in Westchester nearly 31 years ago.  

A period of significant growth occurred for charters within the district, with enrollments peaking during the pandemic. The number of charters in L.A. Unified remains more than double that of a decade ago. 

Despite outperforming traditional public schools on state assessments and boasting higher graduation rates, charter operators in L.A. perceive themselves as under attack, according to Oliver Sicat, CEO of Ednovate, overseeing five charter high schools in Los Angeles.  

“We are currently at a low point,” expressed Sicat, who has been involved with charters in Los Angeles for twelve years, following prior roles as an educator and administrator in Boston and Chicago. 

Competition has replaced collaboration between district schools and charters due to a diminishing student pool, noted Sicat, signaling a significant shift in attitudes in recent years. Both types of schools operate on a per-pupil funding basis. 

About two years ago, election results in the LA school board favored a new majority skeptical of charter schools, thereby granting opponents of charters a strong position. 

The board introduced a resolution instructing Carvalho to develop a policy that would prevent charter schools from utilizing roughly 350 school buildings for colocations, aiming to maintain enrollment feeder patterns for district-run schools.  

Carvalho adhered to the directive, and the board, in a 4-3 vote during a Feb. 12 meeting, approved the union-supported colocation rules. Board president Jackie Goldberg, a coauthor of the resolution advocating for the policy, emphasized its purpose in safeguarding district programs. 

“The primary goal of charter schools was not to supplant public schools but to enhance them,” Goldberg iterated. “Unfortunately, that vision has been obscured through competitive stances.”  

Given the current makeup of the board, charters could face closure during the upcoming renewal cycle, the first since 2020, as per Joni Angel, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition for Excellent Public Schools, representing select charter operators in the city. 

“The closure of charters seems almost inevitable at this point, attributed to the new colocation policy and renewal cycle reactivation,” Angel commented. 

However, Angel suggested a potential reversal in fortunes for charters post-November elections, where the board majority could shift back in favor of charters. With two incumbents seeking reelection and two outgoing members leaving vacant seats, including Goldberg, a change in board dynamics is plausible. 

If a pro-charter candidate secures either of the vacant positions, the current board composition could change, Angel mentioned. 

Contentious school board races are common in Los Angeles, with unions and charter advocates vying for influence to sway the board towards a pro- or anti-charter stance over the years. 

Gregory McGinity, executive director of the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, emphasized the group’s vigilance in monitoring the upcoming school board elections, with primaries scheduled for the following month.  

“We believe that the electorate will support candidates promoting policies that foster collaboration between traditional public schools and charter public schools,” McGinity stated. 

With the California Charter Schools Association already threatening legal action against L.A. Unified’s new collocation policies and impending school board elections, conditions in the nation’s largest charter school system could potentially shift favorably back towards charters, as outlined by Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier. 

“The election outcome remains uncertain to me. However, a change in board control could significantly impact the landscape,” Polikoff remarked. 

Myrna Castrejón, President of the California Charter Schools Association, highlighted the uncertain future of charter schooling in Los Angeles and California as a whole, given the statewide peak in charter enrollment approximately three years ago. 

“The value of charter schools in the upcoming decade will not be determined by rapid expansion but by adaptability to change,” Castrejón emphasized. “We are witnessing a greater exodus of families from the public school system than ever before.”

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