L.A. Unified, charters sign compact

Los Angeles Unified and charter schools continue to fight in court over access to district buildings, but on Tuesday, they hit the reset button on other areas of their often contentious relationships.

Los Angeles leaders joined counterparts in eight other cities in signing a compact, brokered by the Gates Foundation, to work together to share best practices and resources. The arrangement will bring immediate benefits to LAUSD’s 182 charter schools. Last week, the school board approved providing access, at no cost to the district, to low-interest loans that charters and districts increasingly are needing, because the state is pushing off school payments for months. Charters will be able to borrow money at 2 to 3 percent through the district’s sources what some had been paying at rates of 18-20 percent in the private market. LAUSD and the charter community also agreed to work together on raising revenue, such as through a parcel tax, and then sharing the money proportionally.

For their part, the charters agreed to openly share admissions and retention information and to admit more special needs students and English learners. Charter school critics have charged that the schools have intentionally discouraged students with disabilities from enrolling. Charters also have agreed to locate in high-needs areas and to partner with the district on recruiting and developing excellent principals and teachers. Both sides agreed to create common measurements of success and to develop a common school report card.

The goal of the agreement is for districts and charters to put animosity aside and begin to find common ground for the benefit of low-income and minority students. Gates is providing $100,000 grants to the partnerships to work out details of the compacts, with the prospect of up to $7 million to some of the cities to fund loans for facilities and innovative instructional practices that districts and charters can share. The other cities that signed the compact are Baltimore, Denver, Hartford, Conn., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, and Rochester, N.Y.

So far, 112 charters in the district have signed the agreement, including the largest charter groups operating in the district: Aspire, ICEF, Kipp, Green Dot, Alliance for Public Ready Public Schools, and Celerity. Only high-achieving charters, as mutually defined by both sides, will be eligible for some resources.

Don Shalvey, the co-founder of Oakland-based Aspire Public Schools and now deputy director of the Gates Foundation, is hoping that other California charters and urban districts – Oakland, San Diego, Fresno, and schools in Santa Clara County – also consider similar agreements. The next round of grants will be next spring.

Other cities signing the compact agreed to work toward a policy of fairly sharing district facilities – a major concession, since finding buildings can be the biggest obstacle to opening charter schools and rent is one of their biggest expenses. However, the California Charter Schools Assn. has sued LAUSD over its failure to provide comparable facilities to charters as required under Proposition 39 and an agreement under a previous lawsuit. Last year, according to Charter Schools Association CEO Jed Wallace, the district failed to make an offer of buildings to 36 of 81 charters that applied.

This week, there was progress in the case. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Terry Green ordered the district to comply with the law and to make preliminary offers for facilities to all charters that apply for facilities by Feb. 1, with final offers by April 1, and indicated that he would monitor the situation. The judge hasn’t decided yet whether to appoint an independent master to ensure compliance.

Sharing district buildings equitably would be likely a key component of an agreement between other California school districts and charters.

Online learning to drive charter schools’ innovation and expansion

Netflix CEO and charter school benefactor Reed Hastings attracted attention two months ago when he bought the education software company DreamBox Learning for $10 million.

Losing interest in charters and moving on to a new challenge? Hastings said he was asked.

To the contrary, Hastings said this week, technology and charter schools will reinforce each other. Savings from the use of new technology will fuel the expansion of charter schools, and their growth will force hidebound school districts in turn to adapt innovative technologies that will improve learning.

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