As California Charter Schools Excel, Los Angeles's Top Public District Makes It Harder To Attend Them

New district policy will bring difficult commutes for low-income charter school families, officials argue

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September 28, 2023

Los Angeles's top public school district approved a measure that will make it harder for students to attend the city's popular charter schools, a move that comes as those schools deliver stronger academic gains than their district counterparts.

The Los Angeles Unified School District voted Tuesday to overhaul its implementation of Proposition 39, a state law that compels California's public districts to give charter schools access to their facilities. Under the district's new measure, hundreds of district sites that charter schools could typically use to hold class will no longer be made available, thus forcing those schools to use locations that are farther away from where their attendees live. Given that Los Angeles's charter schools typically attract students from low-income families who lack reliable sources of private transportation, the added commute could force students to ditch their charter school in favor of a more convenient district location.

The move comes as LAUSD students struggle—only 28 percent met California's math standards in 2022, while 42 percent met state reading standards, according to district data. The state's charter schools, by comparison, are significantly outperforming their local district alternatives, according to a study from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes published in June. Students at one Los Angeles-based charter school, for example, gained the equivalent of 107 additional learning days when compared with similar students at traditional public schools.

Now, as LAUSD works to water down its charter school accommodations and move those schools to other sites, local officials and policy experts are expressing concern that low-income students will flounder. Local charter school principal David Garner said he may be forced to move some students to a new site that comes with an hour-long commute, which he noted is often infeasible for the families his school serves.

"They were going to offer us another school, which is Sepulveda Middle School, which is 6.9 miles away," Garner told EdSource. "And 6.9 miles away is not a big deal if you have people that have cars. However, 88 percent of our students' parents come from free-and-reduced lunch backgrounds." California Charter Schools Association president and CEO Myrna Castrejón similarly blasted the district's measure as "misguided" and "immoral," arguing that it "could have a devastating impact on thousands of charter public school students enrolled on campuses across LAUSD."

LAUSD did not return a request for comment.

In addition to its students' struggles to meet state standards, the district is experiencing a strong drop in enrollment. LAUSD has lost more than 100,000 students since the 2015-16 school year, enrollment figures show, with many of those students leaving for charter schools.

"Enrollment declines in LAUSD can be attributed to people enrolling in charter schools, which LAUSD is one of the top largest charter sectors in the nation," University of Southern California associate professor Morgan Polikoff said earlier this month.

California voters passed Proposition 39 in 2000, and LAUSD board president Jackie Goldberg said the district's new measure "is an effort to prevent some of the worst impacts" from the proposition. While the exact specifications of the district's new policy are unclear—the superintendent has 45 days to draft it—the measure is aimed at prohibiting charters from accessing facilities at the district's lowest-performing schools. Charter Schools Development Center executive director Eric Premack, a veteran charter school adviser who helped draft Proposition 39, said the district's change violates the law.

"Splitting charter schools up over multiple sites clearly violates the express terms of the law that was approved directly by California's voters, which provides that the facilities provided to charter schools ‘shall be contiguous, furnished, and equipped,’" Premack told the Washington Free Beacon.

While the district's measure attracted widespread criticism in Los Angeles's charter school community, LAUSD did earn some praise ahead of its Tuesday vote. The Democratic Socialists of America's Los Angeles chapter, for example, commended the district for "protecting our public schools" and bringing "much-needed accountability, transparency, and oversight" to the city's charters.