After charter moratorium vote, families voice anger, betrayal, disappointment — and vow to fight back
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | January 31, 2019
Families, teachers and students from Los Angeles’s independent charter schools turned out by the thousands Tuesday to urge school board members to reject a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charters in L.A. Unified. After the resolution passed with only one dissenter, parents said they felt betrayed and worried about what the vote actually meant and said they are “ready to fight back.”
Tuesday’s rally was the largest protest by charter supporters that L.A. advocates could recall. Their numbers were dwarfed by the tens of thousands of union supporters who marched before and during the six-day teacher strike. But it was a show of force for those who said they had stood by respectfully during the strike but now felt their community and their right to school choice were under attack. Some said they felt sold out by those they called supporters and a backroom deal to end the strike that targeted their schools.
The 5-1 vote approved a board resolution calling on state leaders to order a pause on opening new charters in the district while they conduct an eight- to 10-month study of their financial impact. Charter supporters plan a March 13 rally in Sacramento to press legislators and the governor not to impose a moratorium. In the meantime, they expressed confusion over what it means for charter families now.
“By supporting this it doesn’t mean that in L.A. we are going to have a moratorium, that’s not what this means,” board President Mónica García explained a day after the vote. “It’s a communication about an intention about what would be helpful from one particular perspective.” Until Gov. Gavin Newsom acts, nothing has changed in L.A., she said.
“A lot of people, one, have to understand what a public school is, and then two, we have to understand that there is no charter ban or moratorium or study in Los Angeles right now, that is not happening.”
Myrna Castrejón, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, also said there is no immediate change.
“All it does is it’s a recommendation to the state legislature and governor to act,” Castrejón said. For that to happen, “a bill has to be introduced, debated and approved in the first house, the second house, pass to the governor for him to sign and then set an implementation timeline. (There’s) nothing about whether authorization of new petitions or renewals will materially change at a local level.”
Before the board approved the resolution, charter families gathered in unprecedented numbers, about 3,500 people according to an estimate by an L.A. School Police officer outside the district’s headquarters. People chanted “My child, my choice” in English and Spanish as they filled the street, which was closed in both directions as people of all ages streamed in. Students arrived in their uniforms, some with their bands and dance groups. Parents pushing strollers through the crowd managed to hold their little ones’ hands and posters at the same time.
Some parents arrived early to line up on the sidewalk outside the boardroom’s entrance so they could get one of the limited slots to speak at public comment. One of them was Roxann Nazario, mother of a fifth-grader at Fenton Avenue Charter School in the San Fernando Valley.
She has been advocating for school choice, and particularly for charter schools, for the last two and a half years. Her involvement grew after she joined Kelly Gonez’s campaign for the board in 2017. A day after the board vote, in which Gonez supported the resolution, Nazario said, “Our charter community in Board District 6 is extremely hurt.”
Gonez “presented an amendment and incorporated some changes into the resolution, that part I appreciate. But of course we didn’t think she was actually going to do that. I’m not going to attack her, but I’m just going to say from the heart that it hurts.”
Nazario was in tears Tuesday as she addressed the board.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be here,” she said, then pointed at board member Richard Vladovic, who authored the resolution. “You were the one who [told me that] charter school parents should not feel like they have a scarlet ‘A’ on their chest. Well, do you think this helps? What are you doing to bring us together now?”
On Wednesday, Nazario said of the board members’ agreement to pass a resolution to end the strike, “You shouldn’t have made that promise in the first place, a promise you didn’t have the right to make. You sacrificed us and anybody in the future who wants school choice for their child.”
Nazario said that she and about eight parents met with Gonez on Monday to ask her to vote no on the resolution.
She said Gonez told them that she was inclined to support the resolution only if the board would include language she was going to offer as an amendment. Vladovic forcefully rejected Gonez’s amendment, which failed to win the required four votes. Despite that, she voted to approve Vladovic’s resolution, which he had modified slightly during the meeting.
“It makes us look bad, dumb, for trusting her. It reflects badly on us,” said Nazario, who plans to attend the Sacramento rally. “When we campaigned for her, she was the best candidate that we had to choose from. I just wish that she would be a little stronger with where she stands and not alienate the charter community that helped her get there.”
Gonez responded in an email Wednesday to LA School Report that “I was elected to represent all of Board District 6, including families of district schools as well as charter schools. I support options for families, but a key part of governing is compromise. I sought to improve the final resolution, but despite my efforts, the full Board did not accept those changes.
“A study of charter schools could help to inform continued policy improvements, and it remains up to the state to decide whether to put a temporary pause in place during that study. If they do, students in existing charter schools will not be impacted,” Gonez added.
Before the board meeting, García, the board president, had addressed the rally to thank charter supporters for showing up, telling them, “I hear you, I’m with you.” She said Wednesday by phone that she had heard multiple criticisms since the vote.
“I embrace the responsibility that some people felt unsupported, I hear that. I know what they wanted. But I did not go out there to tell them, I will vote as you want me to. I said I understand, you do not want to be closed, you want a choice for your kid, you want us to stand up and tell Sacramento that you are part of the solution.”
She stressed “the respect that I have for any mom or parent or community member that is fighting the fight for their kid and their community.”
“What I wanted them to know is we need you part of this district, and we need your voices. If we’re going to march and take to the streets, you need to be here too.”
Vladovic cited fewer students enrolling in the district’s 225 independent charter schools as one reason for a moratorium.
“The rate of growth is slowing as charter leaders recognize that there is a natural limit to how many schools of any model our student population can sustain,” Gonez said Wednesday.
CCSA data show that enrollment in independent charters authorized by L.A. Unified has grown by over 4,000 students for each of the last three years, from 87,572 in 2013 to 112,333 in 2018.
Javier Reyes, CEO and founder of Alta Public Schools, including Academia Moderna and Prepa Tec charter schools in Huntington Park, was at the rally and said all of his schools have waiting lists.
“Families want high-quality schools, and that’s what the families we serve — low-income families — have found in charters. Charters are not the root of the problem. If traditional schools would offer high-quality education, charter schools simply wouldn’t exist. Our families are demanding more charter schools, and politics shouldn’t dictate what they want.”
Xitlali Castro, a mother of a middle school student at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima, said days before the vote that, “If there are too many charter schools, then why did I have to get on the lottery list for the four charter schools I applied when I was looking for a middle school for my son? Some of the charter schools I applied to had waiting lists, and some never called me, so if there are too many, why would they have to use a lottery to admit students?”
Nazario said in her community in Sylmar there are only two middle schools, and she fears her daughter may have no other option.
“We have only two, Olive Vista, which is notoriously bad for generations, and PUC, which only takes two or three hundred kids,” she said. “We have a lot of elementary charters in Sylmar, but we also have a severe lack of charter middle schools. We need more charter middle and high schools. The moratorium resolution is so wrong at too many levels.”
She added, “They signed the contract on the backs of charter students and of thousands of students on waiting lists waiting to get into charter schools because they want to get out of their district schools.”
Nick Melvoin, the board’s vice president and sole “no” vote on the moratorium, said at the board meeting, “I don’t believe in unlimited charter growth, and if you don’t believe that, then consider that since I’ve been on this board, not one new charter school has opened in Board District 4.”
Gonez said by email Wednesday that the district has approved just four new charters this school year. Next Tuesday’s board meeting is the monthly meeting on charters. No new charter petitions are scheduled for a vote, just one material revision and one renewal petition.
More than 80 percent of charter students are non-white and from low-income households, according to CCSA.
The crowd outside district headquarters Tuesday was a reflection of that. While families came from all parts of the city, they were overwhelmingly Latino, and a number of them said they were immigrants.
Adela Carmaz, an immigrant from Romania, said her two daughters asked her to join the rally Tuesday to advocate for their school, High Tech Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. One is in ninth grade, the other is now at UC Davis.
“I grew up in a Communist country where I had no choice for schools, so I want choices for my children. I have nothing against LAUSD. I just want to have a choice for my children. I did have not that in my country, that’s why I’m here,” Carmaz said.
“I had to miss work today, but they asked me to be here,” said Carmaz, one of the first parents to arrive outside the district headquarters early Tuesday morning. She said that when she discovered charter schools after her daughters attended district schools in elementary and middle school, she saw a big difference.
“Everyone knows my daughter by name, there’s only 20-something students per class, and when my daughter graduated she got accepted to all the colleges she applied to.”
Magda Ríos immigrated from Guatemala and her children attend Fenton and Vista Charter. She said charter schools have offered her children access to high-quality education. “For me, as an immigrant, education is major. It’s a possibility for having a better future. That option in my country doesn’t exist,” she said in Spanish.
“This is a country of opportunities, so I’m here to ask the board members to please follow their hearts and focus on the kids and families, because while we parents are fighting for a better education for our children, they just care for more money and their politics.” Ríos said. She said she wants the division among parents and the attacks against charters to stop, and a moratorium wouldn’t help.
Guadalupe Torres said she joined the rally because she has children in both traditional and charter schools. She said she also supported the teachers in their strike. “It’s not fair that we respected them when they were on strike demanding a better salary and nurses, but they are now attacking our charter schools. My eldest child is in the tenth grade at an excellent charter school and they should respect that, put their politics away and respect our choice,” she said in Spanish.
Ana Ponce, who founded Camino Nuevo Charter Schools, which serves a large immigrant population, was at Tuesday’s rally. “People here feel they can’t have that choice without charter schools. They believe in public schools, most of them have children attending both schools. We just want good schools for all kids in this city,” said Ponce, who this month started as executive director of Great Public Schools Now, which advocates for more high-quality school options, both charter and district.
Castrejón, who previously held that position, told the crowd from the stage that as a Latina and as an immigrant, “I’m used to being lied about. I know what it is like to face closed doors to opportunity, and today there are people that want to put a cap on our dreams. We have the right to speak with our voice.”
On Wednesday, Castrejón said by phone that “charters have always been open to refining and improving the policy framework under which we can improve our services to students, that’s a conversation we’re very open to. But certainly introducing this issue of stopping all growth until we figure out what the problem is, that just not how policy is made.”
Tuesday’s rally, she said, “was not the end but the beginning.”
“We will continue to tell our story so Californians understand who we serve, what value we’re adding to public education.”
*This article has been updated to correct that Xitlali Castro applied to seven schools for her son, but only four of them were charter.