Fight Donors With Donors: A Public School System's Plan to Fend Off Charters

Los Angeles already has more charters schools than any city in the country, but a group of top education fundersled by the Broad Foundationwants to take things much further through a half billion dollar drive to double the number of LA students in charters. As we've reported, this is the most ambitious initiative yet by a charter school movement that clearly still has lots of juiceeven as a growing chorus skeptics argue that charters are producing mixed results. 

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The new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District says she isn’t hostile to charter schools. However, school board members have put Michelle King in an awkward position of looking for outside money to slow down their competition for the city's kids and the state's dollars.  

School Board members Ref Rodriguez and Monica Garcia believe LAUSD can beat the charters at their own game by asking funders for cash and partners like NASA for technical support to expand the best programs the district has to offer.  

L.A. Unified stands to lose $135 million by 2023 if the charter movement succeeds. The district, which is charged with providing a quality public education to neighborhood kids throughout the city, says it's doing a better job. But, there are limitations to how much academic improvement can be expected without more funding. 

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The school board on May 10 passed a two-fold resolution that directs Superintendent Michelle King to come up with a plan to replicate the district’s exemplary programs for medicine, science and technology in high-need areas, and to suggest how to find the money to pay for it.

This is an interesting development. Among the many questions surrounding charters is whether the competitive threat posed by such schools compels traditional school districts to up their game and get more creative about improving performance. This would seem to be an example of such competitive effects. But can LAUSD find the money to go up against deep-pocketed funders behind the charter push, which include not just Broad, but the Walton Foundation as well?

Board member Ref Rodriguez, who pushed for adoption of the resolution, said he's optimistic. “Los Angeles is such a huge resource. There's many high-wealth individuals, there's foundations. And this is a way for us to say, 'This is the best stuff that we have.'"

The success of the new Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles would suggest that Rodriguez is on to something.

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Also, over the years, LAUSD has indeed received a number of grants from private funders, that include the Wasserman Foundation, the California Community Foundation, the Wallace Foundation, the California Endowment, and the John Carson Foundation. However, the dollar amounts have rarely been huge compared to the amounts flowing to charters. 

Meanwhile, LAUSD points to the successes at several high schools, including a 94 percent graduation rate at its popular Downtown Business High School that has more applicants than available seats. District officials hold up the Science, Technology and Math (STEM) Magnet campus at Francis Polytech High, where 88 percent of students meet or exceed English language arts standards.

U.S. News and World Reports recognized Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School as a top-50 high school in California. Graduation rates throughout the district are rising, too.

It’ll be interesting to see what funding strategies first-year superintendent King presents. Though she’s said publicly in the press that she supports school choice to all of the students and families in the L.A. Unified territory, that line is a selling point used by the charter backers who are trying to take campuses and siphon attendance money away from L.A. Unified’s control.

The city’s foundations and funders will have a decision to make if and when LAUSD comes calling: Are we old school or new school?