Growing backlash

Because state education funds follow enrollees, the more students in charter schools, the less funds are allocated for educating students who remain with the districts.

This has sparked a fierce backlash from teachers’ unions — especially United Teachers Los Angeles — and public school advocates. Indeed, stopping or slowing charter school formation was a key goal for UTLA during the teachers strike earlier this year.

AB 1505 requires a school district to consider the financial impact of a new charter school when it takes up a new charter school petition. The district must also consider whether the school is “consistent with the interests of the community,” according to the language in the agreement.

If too many charter schools form in a school district, siphoning off funds needed to keep the district on solid financial footing, the agreement allows the district to reject the petition — something it cannot do today. Petitioners would still have the right to appeal to the county Board of Education.

Plateau in growth

The expected new law is unlikely to be put to an immediate test. That’s because the rate of charter school formation across the state — especially in Los Angeles County — has slowed dramatically in recent years, according to Carlos Marquez, senior vice president of government affairs for downtown-based California Charter Schools Association.

The association, one of two representing the charter school industry in the state, initially opposed legislation to put the brakes on charter school formation. But with the agreement, CCSA switched its position to neutral.

“Statewide, we’ve seen a plateauing of growth in charter schools,” Marquez said.

He cited several reasons: demographic-related declines in enrollment, the increasing sophistication of charter school opponents and — especially in L.A. County — the high cost of land and complex zoning issues for new facilities.

For major charter operators like Alliance and Green Dot, there’s another factor acting to slow their rate of growth: the need to consolidate gains after 10 to 15 years of rapid growth.

“Between early 2008 and late 2015, we went from 2,500 students to 10,000 students,” said Green Dot spokesman Sean Thibault. “For the time being, we do not have plans to open new schools.”

At least in California — in its most recent annual report, Green Dot indicates it does plan to continue adding locations in Tennessee and Washington.

Similarly, Alliance has decided to slow its growth, which had been nearly nonstop since its 2004 launch; the organization now has 28 schools.

“In 2015, the organization made a decision to pause growth to focus on deepening academic excellence across our network of schools and to strengthen programing to ensure our scholars not only get accepted to college, but thrive in and graduate from college,” Suitor, Alliance’s spokeswoman, said in an email.

Suitor noted that many students arrive on Alliance campuses as much as four years behind their grade level in reading and other skills. Catching those students up requires tremendous resources.

Tougher challenge

The pause in growth is meant to be temporary, though. “In the future, it may be of interest to open new Alliance schools,” Suitor said, “particularly at the elementary level.”

And that is where the new law will have an impact.

“It is disappointing and disheartening to witness the legislative debate shift away from a focus on high-quality schools for all students — charter or district schools — and instead focus on preserving and protecting established systems regardless of how well they do for children,” Suitor said.

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