L.A.’s two largest charter school operators will likely escape the fallout from a state bill giving school districts more tools to block new charter campuses — at least for now. But that’s largely because Alliance College-Ready Public Schools and Green Dot Public Schools, both based downtown, are coming off periods of rapid expansion and have no immediate plans to add schools.
Alliance has 28 charter schools in Los Angeles County on 24 campuses, and Green Dot has 20 charter schools in the county.
Both operators, however, have plans to resume their expansion eventually. That’s when the bill — which passed the Legislature last week and was sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his expected signature — will likely be felt.
“This bill would certainly make it more difficult to open any new Alliance school, including elementary schools, as it would for all new charter public schools,” said Catherine Suitor, spokeswoman for Alliance College Ready Public Schools.
Alliance, which was founded in 2004 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is the largest single charter school operator in L.A. County, with 13,000 students at 18 high schools and 10 middle schools. Its operating budget for the fiscal year ending June 2018 was $189 million, most of which comes from state education funds.
Green Dot was founded in 1999 also as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. In 2014, Green Dot reorganized so it could expand to other states; it now has five charter schools in Tennessee and three in Washington.
Green Dot’s California operation remains focused on L.A. County where it serves roughly 12,000 students across three school districts: Los Angeles Unified, Inglewood Unified and Lennox. Its budget for the fiscal year ending in June 2018 was $150 million, mostly comprised of state education funds.
The agreement represents the first legislative attempt to put the brakes on charter schools, something long sought by public school teachers’ unions and other opponents. Charter schools are public schools operated independent of school districts with their own teachers and administrators. Their aim is to bring competition to K-12 education.
Under a law enacted in 1982, school districts must approve new charter schools so long as applicants meet financial viability criteria and present a solid academic program.
That law spurred a boom in charter school formation, with money for operators pouring in from foundations and education reform groups.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the number of charter schools exploded from a handful 20 years ago to 224 today, taking in nearly 20% of the roughly 735,000 students in LAUSD territory.
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.
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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