Making Things Transparent – The Time to Break Up LAUSD is Now

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

Happy Father’s Day to all our CharterDads out there. I hope the day gives you a chance to charge batteries.

Meanwhile, I confess up front. CharterFolk:

This one is a beast of a post.

It’s because I’m taking on a beast of a topic.

LA Unified.

Hopefully, you’ll make it to the end with me and will realize why I had to be so beastly.

Let’s get to it.

Making Things Truly Transparent – The Time to Break Up LAUSD is Now

Sometimes you just have to shake your head.

The Los Angeles Unified board is remaking its website.

The board’s website is “meant for the public to access anything and everything that the board does in the public eye,” says the board’s executive officer Michael McLean.

Supposedly so the public can access “anything and everything.

Right.

You want to give the public access to things that matter?

Why not publish a map showing the utilization rates of all district campuses like Houston ISD recently did …

… so the public can see how many precious community assets are being underused, which would lay bare the ridiculousness of the board’s assertion that it doesn’t have enough facilities to share with charter schools?

But I get ahead of myself.

Let me go to the article that made me want to write this column in the first place.

At nearly the same time that the district was committing to some new level of transparency, this article came out …

… showing how the district’s actual lack of transparency leads various parties to draw the most ridiculous conclusions, like the idea that Los Angeles charter schools are somehow undermining Brown v Board.

The study supports the idea that parents, particularly white parents, have enrolled their children in charter schools that are majority white. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, white parents have opted out of big urban district schools. There’s generally more segregation both within the charter sector and between charter and traditional public schools.

Now, CharterFolk, it’s tempting to get frustrated with the author of a piece like this for getting things so wrong. But really, it’s hard to assign blame. Who knows what her motivations might be? She used to work as a teacher in a Camden charter school, suggesting we might at least extend her the benefit of the doubt. Having been given an assignment to write about a community on the other side of the country she doesn’t know very well, what does she do?

She relies on supposedly reliable sources of information.

Like the district itself.

And people like Gary Orfield at the Civil Rights Project …

… and Bruce Fuller at Berkeley.

The problem is relying on the supposedly reliable, because the supposedly reliable, sadly, are often the least reliable when it comes to charter school matters.

They come together to generate publications that purvey some of the most inaccurate information about charter schools we see anywhere in the landscape. And they keep spreading their misinformation no matter how many times they have been shown that the underlying data they use to justify their conclusions is completely wrong.

Let me set the record straight by stating the obvious:

Charter schools in Los Angeles in no way facilitate white parents opting out of the district.

Since 2011, autonomous charter schools – schools that are operated by nonprofits with separate legal status from the district – have grown to serve 22% of public school students.

The percentage of students served has continued to grow even as the raw number of students attending autonomous charter schools has dropped slightly in recent years because enrollment in district schools has fallen off a cliff.

Both in typical district schools …

… as well as in “district-dependent” charter schools operated by LAUSD.

“District-dependent” charter schools are district schools that have put on a layer of make-up.

They’re not different from other district schools in any significant way. They aren’t separately incorporated. They have no nonprofit running them. They have no separate governing board overseeing them. They keep the same attendance boundaries they always had. The district manages them just like they do other district schools. The same union contract is in place. Teachers have the right to move in and out of the schools with the same seniority rights they have at other district schools. Employee pay is the same, as are benefits.

They are sometimes referred to as “affiliated” charter schools.

The best name for them is “chinos.”

Charters in name only.

Schools that never sought to become charters but were administratively re-labeled as such by LAUSD’s central administration in order to grow the district’s revenues.

It happened during a period beginning in 2012 when the school district saw that changes in Title I funding rules made it financially advantageous for the school district to convert its higher SES schools to charter status. That way the district could collect new Title I monies for the low percentage of low-income students who were served in its high SES schools, while knowing that “maintenance of effort” requirements would ensure that the rest of LAUSD would continue receiving the district’s previous level of Title I funding.

It was a financial slight of hand that was widely covered at the time …

… leading knowledgeable people like Macke Raymond to state the obvious:

“If a charter … is just a way of infusing a school or a group of schools with additional resources, that’s just a money grab,” said Margaret Raymond, director of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). “The charter movement doesn’t accept that as a legitimate charter.”

Legitimate or not, the district ultimately ended up converting nearly 40 of its schools to affiliated status between 2011 and 2015.

Every one of them was a high SES school in the San Fernando Valley.

At the time, over 40% of the students enrolled in those district schools were white. So when they were converted to affiliated status, the aggregate number of white students in such schools spiked.

Meanwhile, white enrollment in autonomous charter schools showed no similar trend.

But if you wrap the chino schools and the true charter schools together – something we constantly caution researchers to never do – because the size of the chino schools relative to autonomous schools was so large, you get a completely skewed view.

Like the idea that over a 4-year period Los Angeles charter schools added 20,000 white students to their enrollment …

… when, in fact, nothing like that happened in true charter schools.

The reality is that autonomous charter schools in Los Angeles have always served a relatively small percentage of white students, about the same percentage as district-wide white student representation. Growth in white student enrollment in autonomous charter schools has followed the trajectory of autonomous charter school enrollment growth generally, increasing steadily until the onset of the pandemic and then decreasing slightly since then.

Meanwhile, in terms of percentage of overall students being white, autonomous charter schools and LAUSD schools have demonstrated a similar trend over that same period. In 2011 9.0% of district students and 7.6% of autonomous charter school students were white. Today 10.0% of district students and 9.0% of autonomous charter school students are white.

So the idea that somehow LA charter schools – true charter schools, not district-operated chino schools – are somehow facilitating white families opting out of public schools is a complete fantasy.

But try explaining that to the likes of Gary Orfield and Bruce Fuller.

For some reason, and I will leave it up to CharterFolk readers to surmise why this might be, they constantly refuse to disaggregate the district’s money-grab chino schools from their reporting on, and from their critique of, true charter schools.

As such, they present a fundamentally inaccurate picture.

Fuller, for example, recognizes the presence of affiliated charter schools and rightly identifies how those schools “seal off their borders” with attendance boundaries that protect middle class citadels.

The charters opting to affiliate with LA Unified … hosted much larger concentrations of middle-class kids. White youngsters made up two-thirds of their enrollments, and 11 percent were of Asian heritage. Two-fifths of all affiliated charter enrollees reported that at least one parent held a graduate degree. Test scores in math averaged nearly one SD above the man score for their TPS counterparts. While some affiliated charter high schools reached out to poor families, this did not occur for charter elementary schools. They mostly sealed off their borders, hoping to preserve their middle-class position in what was becoming a segmented field of diverse schools.

But then, rather than making the patently obvious point that the maintenance of “sealed border” attendance boundaries is a hallmark of schools operated by the district, regular and affiliated charter district schools, and not autonomous charter schools, which have no attendance boundaris, Fuller groups the affiliated charter schools with autonomous charter schools and labels them to be schools operated by “outside agitators.”

And then, using the warped data that comes from such an unfair and inaccurate grouping, he goes on to make his case against charter schools, creating sections of his book Schools that Work to reflect his assertion that charter schools are somehow creators of “sharper stratification …”

… and “inequality.”

Meanwhile, Orfield goes so far as to claim that:

Racial identifiability influences segregation in the charter sector as well as between the regular public and charter sectors. A Los Angeles County dataset found that White and Asian families exercise considerable school choice in communities with higher shares of Black and Latinx families (Schachner, 2022). School choice among the study’s White and Asian families appeared largely driven by racial avoidance, echoing findings from survey and qualitative research finding school racial makeup fueled simplistic labels like good and bad (Holme, 2002; Goyette & Lareau, 2014; Haderlein, 2022).

And this sort of nonsense being out in the landscape, some unsuspecting journalist from the other side of the country ends up reporting a gross inaccuracy.

The Ripple Out Effect of Inaccurate Reporting

As dangerous as Orfield’s and Fuller’s misreporting is in terms of deluding others, perhaps even worse is how it feeds their own future self-delusions, which they then share at the most inopportune moments.

Like the creation of California’s historic Local Control Funding Formula in 2013, which directed additional resources to school districts serving high need students.

When asked to wax philosophic about the significance of the change at a gathering of perceived reliable ones …

… Orfield shared ideas that were utterly the opposite of the truth.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project and co-author of the report, said districts could invest in creating high-quality schools that would attract a diverse student enrollment rather than supporting choice programs, like some charters, that exacerbate existing school inequalities. The report calls for options to allow students currently enrolled in segregated schools to attend magnet schools or academically strong schools outside of their communities. These students should be provided free transportation to those schools as well, Orfield said.

The cluelessness demonstrated in this statement is just stunning to behold.

Not only were charter schools at that time and to this very day not exacerbating inequalities, as has already been demonstrated, they were the only schools in Los Angeles that were generating better outcomes with students.

Two months before this panel discussion took place, analysis showed that Los Angeles charter schools were among the highest performing in the nation.

A few years later, additional research …

… would show that in the first years of LCFF implementation, charter schools were generating extraordinary outcomes with students while other types of schools operated by LAUSD were shown to be having little to no impact.

Perhaps, he had been reading the section titles of Fuller’s work which claimed that …

… the “inside game,” schools operated by the district, was yielding results.

But had Orfield read the actual outcomes cited within those sections, he would have seen that there was no category of “academically strong” schools being operated by the district that could be leveraged to higher impact in the LCFF era.

Our findings proved disappointing on the achievement front – observing no discernible advantage in learning gains among those attending a pilot campus in the first year of high school relative to the learning curves of TPS peers ….

It led Fuller to fish around for other evidence of success generated by the “inside game.” He ended up citing the gains in learning that happened due to the district’s ability to get off the multi-track calendar that had bedeviled LAUSD for decades.

But as I have shown here previously …

… the district’s ability to get off the multi-track calendar was not an achievement of “insiders,” but was an accomplishment that the charter school world was more responsible for than any other party.

(By passing Prop 39 which lowered the threshold for approval of facilities bonds providing the district tens of billions of dollars to build new campuses, and by building scores of new campuses growing the overall supply of school facilities in Los Angeles.)

Even Fuller’s claim that insiders had increased the percentage of district students who complete a course of study making them eligible to attend California’s public universities was in fact progress that charter schools had led the way on.

Imagine that.

In the very spring that Orfield is appearing on panels denigrating the contribution of charter schools, graduating seniors at LA’s charter schools had A-G completion rates three times higher than district schools.

It’s exactly this kind of misinformation in the public sphere that leads to some of the most misguided public policy making.

Literally, in the same year that charter schools in Los Angeles under Yolie Flores’s revolutionary Public School Choice Program …

… were shown to be far outperforming district schools in the same program, with all schools inarguably serving the exact same kids from the exact same neighborhoods …

… what do policy makers do?

Greatly expand charter schools’ role as you would expect given how much better historically underserved students were being educated by charter schools in the program?

In fact, the very opposite.

They sunset the program altogether.

Perhaps the very saddest thing of all to see in Orfield’s comments in the spring of 2014 was his calling for the expansion of magnet schools.

Some of them in Los Angeles, as we have written about here previously …

… are fine schools. But dozens upon dozens use selective admissions, screening out kids from historically underserved backgrounds …

… actually “stratifying” opportunity, as Fuller calls it, and “exacerbating inequality” as Orfield calls it.

Meanwhile, What Happens Within the Non-Transparent, Unaccountable, Inequitable District

Sadly, those able to see through the lack of transparency that LAUSD throws up on all matters, especially financial ones, know what really became of LCFF implementation in Los Angeles Unified.

Barely was the law two years old before advocates were suing the district alleging that LAUSD was refusing to direct $450M of the new funding to the schools for which the money was intended.

Two years after that, the advocates were claiming victory …

… only to see the school district approve budget changes that were a mere fraction of what the settlement called for.

Seeing they weren’t getting anywhere with LAUSD directly, advocates filed a complaint with the state …

… which soon confirmed that LAUSD was indeed still screwing over poor kids, now to the tune of $2 billion dollars annually

… leading some to conclude that the LCFF law needed to be rewritten.

Of course, the driving force preventing the equitable distribution of resources to schools …

… is UTLA.

Not just in the LCFF era.

But going back decades.

Whether it was the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the 70’s …

… or the Rodriguez consent decree in the 80’s and 90’s …

… or the Williams case in the aughts and beyond …

… the same issue has gone on and on.

LAUSD has simply refused to do right by poor kids.

There have been moments when it has looked like the district would finally be required to stop its blockade …

… only to see remedies stifled and delayed …

… with UTLA always being the juggernaut preventing funds from flowing to the kids who need them most.

Across the decades, there has only been one kind of school in Los Angeles that has not been complicit in the siphoning of money away from schools serving high need kids.

I’m talking about charter schools, of course.

Fully autonomous charter schools.

Schools that only get money for the kids they actually serve, and get audits down to the school level so parents and the public can see where the money goes.

You know, in a transparent way?

All while generating results with kids, especially our most historically underserved kids, that the district has never come close to matching.

What would be great, of course, would be for the district to become transparent like charter schools are.

To include budgets and audits down to the school level in their new website that purports to give the public access to “anything and everything.”

Just like it would be great, also, for researchers to become reliable.

For people like Fuller and Orfield to be there with Public Advocates and the ACLU and MALDEF as they’re filing their various lawsuits against the district, and to be using their various publications to highlight LA Unified’s appalling generations-long history of siphoning money away from Black and Latino and low-income students.

You know, the kind of thing you would expect of reliable sources purporting to call themselves “civil rights projects?”

Instead, they leave it to others to surface common sense and common decency.

Like the recognition that Los Angeles Unified is never going to change its ways.

It’s been acting this way since before most of us were born.

And they’re destined to keep doing so because their priorities are not aligned with the interests of high needs communities but are instead aligned with a status quo that protects the interests of those who work for the system.

And, ultimately, if we’re actually serious about equitable solutions emerging in the City of Angels we’re going to need proposals that summon our better angels.

Like having high need communities like Watts and East LA convert their schools to fully autonomous charter school status so they can finally keep their resources from being sucked away.

Or, short of that, at least breaking their communities off from LAUSD into separate school districts that will finally be able to put an end to it all.

The moral case is clear, CharterFolk.

The time to break up Los Angeles Unified is now.

And while it may not be our job to be the ones saying the forbidden thing, it is our job to know the history.

It is our job to know what is really going on.

Such that when non-transparent, unreliable parties surface their ridiculous accusations about charter schools, at least we can set the record straight.

And can contribute to a general growing awareness so that ultimately the truth is known, not just about our schools, but about all schools.

But we’ve got to know this stuff, CharterFolk.

Deeply.

Such that it seeps into our very DNA.

The history.

The truth concealed under generations of non-transparency.

Not just in Los Angeles.

But in every major urban school district in this country, where very similar if not identical patterns play out.

Patterns CharterFolk is committed to helping make sure our world understands more deeply every single day.

On we go.