After passionate debate, LAUSD goes on record: ‘No’ to Broad plan

Scott Schmerelson

Scott Schmerelson

The LA Unified board today put itself on record as opposing a proposal that originated with the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to expand the number of charter schools in the district in the years ahead.

By a 7-0 vote, the board made it clear that it would do what it could to discourage the effort by the Broad-affiliated group, Great Public Schools Now, to grow what is already the largest charter school population of any school district in the country. At the same time, the board vowed to intensify efforts toward improving educational opportunities within traditional district schools as a way to discourage more students from moving into charters.

“We have thrown down the gauntlet to big business to be very careful with how they deal with LAUSD,” said Scott Schmerelson, whose resolution was also supported by all the district’s labor partners as well as many parents. “They will not take over our district.”

The vote followed a lengthy and sometimes passionate debate in which the board’s vice president, George McKenna, emerged as a surprise supporter of charter schools as an option to traditional schools. Rarely has any member, apart from Mónica García, expressed such unvarnished support for the role charters play in LA Unified.

It was McKenna who introduced the idea in debate that any school that educates a child is a valuable asset, saying, “I don’t care who saves my kids. Just save my kids.”

McKenna also had a kind word for Broad, saying he doesn’t consider the billionaire philanthropist “a villain.”

“We have not as a district admitted our culpability and our own ineffectiveness in dealing with our children,” McKenna said, adding, “What are we committed to, more than ‘Go. away, go away.’ I don’t believe in bogeymen.”

Underlying the board’s discomfort over the charter plan is the district’s slowly declining enrollment, a trend exacerbated by the appeal of charters to many parents. Even now, tens of thousands of LA Unified students are on charter school waitings lists. For months, the district has been struggling to develop ideas on how to stem the outflow.

In expressing support for Schmerelson’s measure, McKenna said, “I’m not anti-charter; I’m not for charters, either. I want to make our schools work, first, to make them competitive so we can compete on our terms.”

A spokesman for Great Public Schools Now said the group would have no response to passage of the resolution.

A major point within the debate was whether to keep the language general or to specify Broad as the originator of the plan that has roiled the district since it was introduced last summer. It was revised late last year to include support for some district schools as well as charters, in part as a response to harsh public reaction.

Mónica Ratliff wanted to insert Broad’s name but settled on the name of the plan. She said, “Eli Broad must know the impact on the district in the long run if that plan was to go forward. This plan was not created to strengthen LA Unified. I want that to be on the record.”

She added, “He’s a smart guy, that Eli Broad. He did not come up with this willy-nilly. There is public consternation with the plan, and it’s become a softer gentler plan and that did not happen without pubic speaking out in a lot of different areas.”

Ultimately, the board discussed various options and concluded to leave the wording that the board would “stand opposed to internal and external initiatives that seek to reduce public education in Los Angeles to an educational marketplace and our children to market shares, while not investing in district-wide programs and strategies that benefit every student whom we are sworn to serve.”

Prior to the debate, a parade of supporters and detractors made their sentiments known to the board members. A group of charter school employees expressed support during a morning meeting, and opponents, including the district’s labor partners, criticized the plan later in the day.

Richard Vladovic raised concerns about the ramifications of declining enrollment that the Broad plan would create. He had originally thought he was going to talk about how the district is too big and recommend making the district smaller, but said privately, “I didn’t think the board would be unified in this resolution.”

Board President Steve Zimmer said he appreciated the board’s coming together to give “a statement that fully recognizes the spectrum of lenses we have on this board.” He said, “I want to call to my own and all of our own higher angels today and moving forward.”

Zimmer said the board “needs to look at the models for of excellent schools across all sectors that have been identified and invest in all schools and if there’s philanthropic investment to make them excellent then why wouldn’t we encourage that?”

Earlier in the day, the board unanimously passed a Ratliff-sponsored resolution that called for making charter schools as transparent in providing information to parents as traditional schools are required.

Sarah Angel of the California Charter Schools Association said although she wasn’t thrilled with Ratliff’s resolution, there was more cooperation in working with Ratliff to refine her resolution than there had been with Schmerelson, who did not meet with the association in crafting his measure.

“These two resolutions are a contrast of public policy,” Angel told the board. She said Ratliff’s resolution “although not perfect, is not draining time and resources away from charter students. On the other hand, we had a different experience with Mr. Schmerelson. Myths and charter rhetoric made its way into the resolution and continues polarization and politics.”

After the vote, Angel added, “There is the sense right now that the school board is more open than before to seeking genuine solutions and common ground, hopefully without sacrificing urgency on behalf of families that need better schools. We’re hopeful that the loudest and most extreme voices on all sides will quiet down and give way to authentic, results-focused collaboration for students. Education should never be an ‘us versus them’ situation, and we all have the opportunity right now to find a third way.”