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Aspire Charter Schools: Behind the Reversal

Hillel Aron | January 18, 2013



Changed votes by two Board members over the approval of two Aspire charter schools at this week’s Board meeting gave the public a glimpse at a much larger debate over whether charter schools based in Los Angeles should be allowed to operate their special education programs through a partnership with a far-off district that costs them less.

Initially, the Board deadlocked 3-3 over the proposed approval of Aspire, a highly rated charter operator founded by Don Shalvey (who’s now the Deputy Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).

Then, two Board members — Bennett Kayser and Steve Zimmer — changed their votes at the behest of Superintendent Deasy and others. However, Zimmer says he remains concerned about roughly 20 charter schools in LA whose special education programs are administered through a partnership located in El Dorado County — seven hours away.

Every school district in California must form a Special Education Local Plan Area, or a SELPA (see overview here), which oversees the administration of special education. Charter schools have to sign on to a SELPA and have to pay a significant amount of money to be a part of it — but, oddly, they don’t have to be part of the SELPA in their district.

Last year, a judge ruled that the State of California had improperly approved six of Aspire’s schools, saying that they had to go back to their local districts for approval (see: Judge revokes state oversight of 6 Aspire charter schools). Two of those (Aspire Junior Collegiate Academy and Aspire Titan Academy) went to the LAUSD board yesterday for approval.

All things being equal, the approvals would have been no problem, since they have such high API scores and since Aspire has such a good reputation. But during the Board debate it was brought to the attention of the members that the two Aspire schools are part of a SELPA in El Dorado County, in Northern California.

In this regard, Aspire is not alone.  More than 20 LAUSD-based charter schools are part of the El Dorado County SELPA, which is cheaper than the local SELPA, run by LAUSD.

The fact that these schools participate in the El Dorado SELPA means that LAUSD has much-reduced authority on recruitment, enrollment and retention of students with disabilities in those schools — and it misses out on money from them as well. “The district will lose money that would have gone to our own special ed program,” said LAUSD General Counsel David Holmquist.

In an attempt to entice the El Dorado charters to join the local SELPA, the LAUSD Board has created three options to administer special ed for charters, and has adopted an informal policy of rejecting charter schools that don’t join the local SELPA.

Board member Steve Zimmer said that money for LAUSD isn’t the main problem: “It’s simply a question about whether kids are being served.” However, oversight is a concern.  “I have, virtually without exception, if a charter is not willing to be in [the local] SELPA, I will not vote for the charter,” said Zimmer. “I don’t have concerns about Aspire. I have a philosophic issue about a charter not being part of the LAUSD SELPA.”

This is why Zimmer led the charge yesterday to reject Aspire’s charters — something the Board does very rarely. Monica Garcia, Nury Martinez and Tamar Galatzan voted to approve, and Zimmer, Kayser and Marguerite LaMotte voted to deny (Dr. Richard Vladovic was sick and therefore absent).

But after the vote, Superintendent Deasy reminded Board members that LAUSD would lose out on a certain amount of funding for authorizing Aspire’s charter, while Aspire would simply get its charters approved by Los Angeles County. And so at the end of the Board meeting, Zimmer and Kayser changed their votes, allowing the two Aspire schools to be approved by a vote of 5 to 1.

“There’s a net gain for the district for having Aspire chartered thorugh the district,” said Zimmer. “Aspire’s one of the highest performing charter schools in state. I’d much rather have them district.”

The Board also directed Holmquist to come back with a report on all 20 LA-based charters who are part of the El Dorado SELPA.

“I believe there are legal issues around service provided to el dorado, and we’re gonna get a report about that,” said Zimmer. “My hope is that we will encourage [Aspire] to transition into LAUSD’s SELPA.”

Previous posts: Crenshaw Reconstituted, Aspire Squeaks By*Board Preview: Charters, Dismissals, TenureBoard President Garcia Talks Policy & PoliticsWhere the Charters Are [Better]

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