This commentary by Robin Lake originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.
Enrollment in L.A. Unified has cycled between boom and bust since 1970, swinging from highs over 700,000 to lows in the mid-500,000s. Enrollment is now low but rose a tiny bit this year. At the current enrollment level, the district is struggling to meet its obligations, including many accepted during the enrollment boom of the early 2000s.
Because, during times of growth, the district makes commitments as if the good times were permanent, it now finds itself in financial trouble. There is one difference this time, however: instead of taking responsibility for not managing its costs, some district and union leaders have sought to shift the blame to charter schools.
Charter schools are public schools. In L.A., most are authorized by the district. But state funding follows the student, so when a student chooses to enroll in a charter school, the funding goes with him or her to the charter — and not to the district. So it’s easy to blame charters for sending the district into a financial tailspin.
Charter schools account for most of the recent enrollment losses. The 224 independent charter schools in L.A. Unified enroll more than 110,000 students, while the district since 2007 has lost almost 160,000 students. However, as an independent panel commissioned in 2015 to study the district’s finances concluded, “even if charter schools didn’t exist, the district would still face a crippling decline in enrollment due to entirely separate factors.”
An essential truth is that parents must continue to choose the best fit for their student. The school board has a responsibility to try to improve district-run schools but should also support parent choice among the charter schools it oversees. L.A. Unified needs a plan, not a scapegoat, to deal with the inevitable falls and rises in enrollment.
If it wants to get serious about curbing the financial impact of enrollment decline, L.A. Unified needs to right-size and adapt to the reality of its student population. District leaders should apply the concept of student-based allocation — much like the Local Control Funding Formula the state now uses to fund districts and charter schools — to its own campuses. Let individual district schools set their budgets, determine staffing, and opt-in to central district services. These services could also be made available to charter schools, achieving greater economies of scale for all. With more delegation and better spending transparency, L.A. Unified will then be able to identify and make the case to the public that it has true legacy costs — such as retiree healthcare obligations — that remain the same even as enrollment declines.
The coming months of negotiations between the district and United Teachers Los Angeles offer a rare opportunity for the L.A. Unified school board to adopt some of these strategies. Holding firm with the teachers union on fewer guaranteed pay hikes and benefit increases above state requirements are necessary, but they won’t be easy. These are the kind of thorny, unpopular decisions that politicians strive to avoid — which is why board members will be tempted to do exactly what their predecessors did and keep kicking the can down the road. But the path to a sustainable future requires making uncomfortable decisions today.
While districts bear the brunt of the responsibility, charters aren’t off the hook entirely. The fates of their students and district students are increasingly intertwined. To soften the blow of district enrollment decline, charters and their advocates should be willing to jointly advocate for state remedies, such as pension reform and changes to the special education finance system. The sector could align its growth to target neighborhoods the district has most identified as needing new school options. Charter schools could buy in to central services to help district offset costs, or develop joint ventures for special education, curriculum support, or even information technology to service both sectors.
This kind of collaboration requires trust, which is in short supply after years of intense battle between reformers and traditionalists. Charter leaders should be wary of any restrictions on growth or funding, until district leaders prove they are willing to make tough choices and reduce legacy costs.
Board President Monica Garcia faces the daunting task of uniting colleagues whose views on school choice are miles apart. Solving the problem of declining enrollment has the potential to unite charter supporters and district loyalists, especially if each is asked to make concessions.
Not only is holding both sides accountable the right thing to do from a policy perspective, it is perhaps the only way to prove to Angelenos that its school board members can rise above politics and do their jobs: build a healthy public school system that will thrive long after they’re gone.