Several years ago, when the state budget crisis began, we saw the first of the Valley Schools applying to become affiliated charters. Yesterday, at the Charter meeting, a whopping 24 schools had public hearings to become affiliated charter schools—nearly all of them from my own Board District 3 and the San Fernando Valley.
They represent some of the highest performing schools in my district, and some of the last schools with a significant middle class population in the city.
They represent a tidal wave of change, and I wonder what it means for the Los Angeles Unified School District and for public education.
Is this the birth of a new system? Will traditional public schools become a repository for the poor and the special education students of our city, with everyone else fleeing the traditional public school system? What does that mean for the future of California?
Affiliated charter schools are peculiar to Los Angeles Unified School District. Schools apply to become affiliated charter schools seeking freedom and funding. Affiliated charters remain on their LAUSD campus, keep their LAUSD union teachers, but write a charter that can allow them curricular and decision-making freedoms not available to traditional public schools. Historically, schools that went affiliated also received a charter school block grant, which often meant they received more money than they would have as traditional public schools.
Deep budget cuts no longer guarantee schools receive more money; finances vary school by school. But going affiliated charter means a school has the latitude to decide for themselves how they spend their money. Instead of receiving money earmarked for specific programs, a school receives a lump sum. This gives a principal, and a campus, the freedom to design a curriculum and a budget.
I applaud the move to transfer decision-making power to school sites.
Schools that have gone affiliated charter report not just greater fiscal and academic freedoms, but also surprising and positive side- effects. Teachers must work more cohesively as a team. A new governance model must be put in place. Parents and community members are forced to take on a larger role at the school. All of this changes the culture of the school and encourages more accountability and investment by community members. Principals report increased enrollment numbers -apparently having “charter” in your name lends some cachet among parents.
All this is good. Any school that offers students a great education should be encouraged, lauded, duplicated. But as the district splinters, I find myself wondering: If a campus with innovators has to become a charter to best serve our kids, have we succeeded? If every middle class family decides that only charters or affiliated charters suit their needs, does that deprive public education of its strongest advocates?
For a state that is already 46th in the nation in per pupil spending, I worry. Where will we obtain the political pressure to reform and improve public education when fewer and fewer of our voters are part of the traditional public education system? Will traditional public schools become like a charity, underfunded, but supplemented by grants from philanthropists who regard helping the poor and undereducated as a virtue?
But maybe this is what change looks like. As an old system refuses to change, a new system is born. The new system will retain students and families, move more nimbly and quickly to improve, and keep more students in some form of public school.
Though I have been talking publicly about this trend for several years, the speed with which this is happening astounds me. But when families, schools and community members leap in to make changes themselves, I also know something good is happening. I only wish reform could happen quickly enough for every child in this district to benefit—not just those lucky enough to be in schools where site leaders take charge and parents step in to support them.
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