Friday, February 14, 2014

Shortsighted board action in L.A.

I was dismayed by news this week that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school board failed to renew two Aspire Public Schools charters because these schools are not participating in the district’s special education services (in California, districts provide special education services via what’s known as a SELPA: Special Education Local Area Plan).

At first, I thought the board must have found that these schools were chronically failing to serve special education students or were denying them admission, or some other problem that would justify the decision not to renew schools that otherwise excel on student outcomes. I would have been surprised, as I know Aspire to have worked harder than any charter management organization I’m aware of to create thoughtful and effective special education services for all high-needs students, including medically fragile students who can be very costly to serve.

Yet by all accounts, this decision apparently had nothing to do with the quality of educational outcomes for students with special needs or even equity of access. It had everything to do with the school board’s desire to force Aspire to pay for services Aspire believes it is able to get elsewhere. Five of Aspire’s twelve L.A. schools do not participate in LAUSD's SELPA (state law allows charter schools to choose which SELPA they join) and two of those five were up for renewal. Those two were seemingly punished because Aspire has five schools that are not putting money in the SELPA pool.

Board member Steve Zimmer was quoted as saying: “We need to be assured that all charters are under this SELPA—and that is my only objection.” He went on to assert that the board can’t oversee special education if the schools are not serviced by the district’s SELPA. This is nonsense. LAUSD’s role as an authorizer and portfolio manager must be to focus on outcomes and to allow schools to make as many choices as possible. Its role is to make sure there are plenty of high-quality support options available to schools, not to be the sole provider of those services themselves. Its role is to promote equitable and effective choices and options for students with special needs, not to close down high-quality options.

To be clear, Superintendent John Deasy supported renewal of these two charters. In 2010, along with charter school leaders, he signed a district-charter compact to find ways to bring charters into the LAUSD system of schools without unnecessarily infringing on the autonomies that allow them to be effective. In fact, the original compact outlined an agreement to work together to modify LAUSD’s SELPA structure to allow for increased autonomy and flexibility. In 2011, mere months after the compact was signed, the school board approved the creation of a separate option in the district’s existing SELPA specifically for local charter schools with increased flexibility, funding, and programmatic control. As is true for many other charter schools in the L.A. area, Aspire had a pre-existing relationship with another SELPA, and for some of its schools, it has chosen to maintain that relationship. This is at the heart of the issue. If this practice is unacceptable to the school board, they need to bring Aspire and the other charter schools who have not joined LAUSD’s SELPA back to the table and find a solution. Denying Aspire’s charters sends a message to the city that the school board cares less about how students are faring in those schools than on how much money the central office can get from the schools.

This kind of nonsensical board action is not in line with CRPE’s view of portfolio management. It is not in line with district-charter collaboration compacts. It is not in line with what will help more L.A. students succeed. This is a stark reminder that cross-sector collaboration efforts around the country will fail if school boards sabotage the work of district leaders such as Deasy and fall back on old habits, insisting that they know better rather than supporting diverse ways to do better.

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