LA’s Resistance to Charter Schools at a Boiling Point

DEEGAN ON LA-In today’s uneasy political climate, threatened by storm clouds of unwanted change, many are expressing their grievances by either complaining about, arguing against, or resisting something political. 

Education, and how it’s delivered, has become one of the flash points for collective dissatisfaction -- all the way from the Federal government, where we have a Cabinet level Education Secretary (who many claim lacks the understanding and experience to do the job) to the local neighborhood level here in LA, where Charter school “co-locations” on LAUSD campuses are an issue. 

A “co-location” (which became state law seventeen years ago) means having a charter school share a campus that has extra classrooms not used full time by the school district -- although those rooms may sometimes be in use for special-ed needs, art, drama and other extra-curricular after-class programs. 

The co-location process has received pushback from parents who don’t want their campuses hosting charter schools, bringing a minimum of eighty additional students from a different school and culture (private school versus public school) into their LAUSD schools. Is the politically expedient anti-globalism movement now going local, where students are becoming the spoils of the education wars? 

For the first ten years of the state law authorizing co-locations, LAUSD mounted legal challenges that they eventually lost. Yet, school district educators, administrators and parents still try to deny implementation of this law that reflected the will of the people in a public vote. Aligning this to the will of the LAUSD has not been easy. 

Expansion of charter schools by “co-locating” onto LAUSD campuses is at a crossroads now, with the May 16 run-off for seats in Districts 4 and 6 crucial to both pro and anti-charter school forces. The people on both sides of the issue have a chance to speak by casting their votes in this election. 

It doesn't take many votes to make a difference; change is lurking in this current school board race. The biggest vote getter in the municipal election -- the Mayor -- was given a second term with the votes of just 15% of the city’s registered voters. Not so lucky was the incumbent and anti-charter-school school board president Steve Zimmer, who is now fighting to hold onto his seat in District 4, jeopardized when he captured slightly under half of the votes cast in his district. This gave him just short of a majority in the close race, forcing a run-off. That slight margin is how little it takes to get elected to a position that could help freeze charter school growth. The flip side is that charter school supporters, seeing this vulnerability, can mobilize and achieve the required votes to win.

A mostly boring, poorly attended municipal election a few weeks ago had a historically low 16% voter turnout that would make anyone’s claim of having a “mandate” sound like something Trump would tweet. This resulted in a run-off for the LAUSD school board seats in District 4, which includes the Westside and part of the west Valley where pro-charter Nick Melvoin faces anti-charter Steve Zimmer; and District 6, the east San Fernando Valley, where charter-backer Kelly Gonez faces union-supported Imelda Padilla. Results in Districts 4 and 6 could tip the school board to a “pro-charter” or an “anti-charter” majority, so lots is at stake. This run-off could tilt the scales in the charter versus traditional school controversy as well as reveal the union versus non-union biases that exist in this, the second largest school district in the country. 

After voters passed Prop 39 in the year 2000, adding to the State Education Code "that public school facilities should be shared fairly among all public school pupils, including those in charter schools....that school districts to make ‘reasonably equivalent’ facilities available to charter schools upon request,” the LAUSD fought back, delaying implementation for ten years until forced to comply. In 2010 they lost a lawsuit brought by the California Charter School Association to compel LAUSD compliance with Prop 39. 

Now, seven years later, the power ratio at the LAUSD school board is vulnerable to a major shake-up. All it will take is two more pro-charter board members to be elected on May 16 and the pro-charter forces will have a majority on the board. It has been seventeen years since Prop 39 was passed -- enough time for a kid to matriculate from kindergarten to the doorsteps of college. 

Across the city, on the neighborhood level (such as in Hancock Park) there are charter schools wanting to use Prop 39 to co-locate onto LAUSD campuses. But many face resistance. Is this a state law versus neighborhood preference conflict? Or is it something more -- possibly a form of NIMBYism? 

“To Be, or Not To Be? That is the question” is what many students learn when they are exposed to Shakespeare’s Hamlet” for the first time. It’s a question many of their parents are asking now with the increasing number of charter schools taking up space on LAUSD campuses. In Hancock Park, they are asking if the LAUSD Third Street School campus will also be home for a charter school. That would swap out a few rooms that are now used for extracurricular activities for a charter school co-location by Citizens of the World Charter Schools which already operates charters in Hollywood, Silverlake and Mar Vista. 

A recent LAUSD presentation about a possible charter school co-location at Third Street School was shouted down by mostly moms who are against co-location. It was as if parents were using another Hamlet quote: “There’s something rotten in Denmark”, although the laws are pretty specific: it’s the adjustment to them that’s causing the emotional turmoil. 

The boiling point will come with the May 16 run-off election. Charter-advocate and Zimmer opponent Nick Melvoin (District 4) and charter-backer Kelly Gonez (District 6) will have to win seats if it’s going to be “goodnight sweet prince” for school board president Zimmer. We may see a school board that says hello to charter school expansion.


(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the Mid City West Community Council and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.