The first charter school in L.A. was the Open School, an elementary school that petitioned the school district to be converted into a charter in 1993, allowing it to operate autonomously, beyond the thicket of LAUSD rules. One of the parents who signed that petition was a teacher named Bennett Kayser, whose youngest son attended the school.
Twenty-two years later, Kayser, now on the L.A. Unified School District Board of Education, is the bête noire of the growing charter school movement.
By law, every proposed new charter school must go before the elected, seven-member LAUSD board for approval. And every five years the same seven politicians must renew every school's “charter” — rules by which charter schools operate outside the reach of LAUSD.
Most charter schools are approved with little to no discussion. Even controversial schools are often approved, despite the worries of some on the board that the charter schools are draining away students.
But Kayser takes it to a whole other level. The one-time parent of a child in L.A.'s first charter school votes against charter schools — nearly every chance he gets.
“[Monica] Ratliff and [Steve] Zimmer, they're open to listening,” says Gary Borden of the California Charter Schools Association Advocates. “They judge each issue on its merits. We can work with them.” But Kayser's “nearly 100 percent” opposition is “a reflexively reactionary vote.”
Borden's advocacy group, CCSA Advocates, wants to push Kayser, who's up for re-election in L.A.'s March 3 primary, off the school board.
The group is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on glossy mailers, radio ads, even TV ads, trashing Kayser. They hope to elect Ref Rodriguez, co-founder of Partnerships to Uplift Communities, or PUC, a chain of charter schools spread from Eagle Rock to Sylmar serving primarily minority and working-class kids.
PUC students earn academic scores well above the state average, the kind of scores seen in the nicest suburbs.
Meanwhile, the teachers union, UTLA, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars touting Kayser and blasting Ref Rodriguez.
Rodriguez agrees that LAUSD should close down underperforming charter schools. But he's disturbed by Kayser's nuclear option of opposing even the ones where minority children are excelling.
Last year, the board voted to close Aspire Antonio Maria Lugo Academy, a heavily Latino school whose low-income kids were thriving academically. Rodriguez calls the vote “morally reprehensible.” The board had insisted the school use LAUSD's special education plan, not its own.
Says Rodriguez: “Here's a high-performing school, by all measures, in a city that does not have a whole lot of options. By forcing it to close, how is that not morally wrong?”
Andrew Thomas, an educational researcher and parent activist also running for that LAUSD seat on March 3, has tried to present himself as the happy medium between Kayser and Rodriguez.
But even Thomas can't believe Kayser's litany of no votes. “To vote on principal or ideology to close a school — it's beyond the pale for me,” he said at a candidate debate.
About 22 percent of LAUSD students — 143,187 kids — now attend charter schools. An overwhelming 73 percent are Hispanic and 9 percent are black, closely tracking the greater LAUSD enrollment (which is 78 percent Hispanic and 9 percent black).
One reason Kayser is anti-charter is that every LAUSD student who enrolls in a charter reduces the headcount, which in turn leads to less money for the district.
Kayser, in a debate in El Sereno, claimed that charters are “taking the district's money away.” To which Rodriguez responded: “That's the problem, Mr. Kayser. You see it as the district's money. I see it as the students' money.”
In theory, a shrinking LAUSD should mean lower district costs. But school employees belong to powerful unions where layoffs are rigorously opposed, and the schools are costly, having been built to a bigger size for big enrollments.
In the early 2000s, voters passed bonds to build new schools in then-overcrowded LAUSD. During construction, the flowering charter schools acted as an escape valve for packed LAUSD classrooms.
But in 2004, enrollment in LAUSD started to drop. That was in part due to a lower birthrate and young families moving to the suburbs — but a major factor is the parent-driven mass exodus to charters, which are often smaller, with younger teachers and greater parent involvement.
Some LAUSD schools are so empty that charter schools are allowed to share the campus space with district schools. This “co-location,” as it's called, has caused internecine squabbles — between the parents, educators and other adults.
Critics say charters don't accept enough special education or disabled students, a charge CCSA vigorously denies. Kayser needles even successful charter schools that boast high student achievement, such as Rodriguez's PUC schools and the well-regarded Aspire and Green Dot chains, calling them “corporate charters.”
“The corporate charter schools are all the same,” he said at the El Sereno debate. “It's like going from Burger King to McDonald's to Jack in the Box.”
He's referring to the fact that charter schools are strongly backed, as a key component of education reform, by corporate leaders including the Walton family and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Charter opponents imply that charters are part of a plot to privatize schools for personal profit.
To seasoned charter-school founders, Kayser's accusation is absurd. “I started Green Dot with my life savings and didn't pay myself for three years,” says Steve Barr. “I don't know what he's talking about. I give money to Planned Parenthood, KPCC and KPFK. Are those corporations? I wouldn't say it's libel, but it's pretty close to it.”
Kayser is, more often than not, the lone no vote against renewing a charter school. After all, charter schools are incredibly popular. A 2014 Gallup poll found that between 63 and 70 percent of Americans support them, while 54 percent think they are better than their public school counterparts. Thousands of parents are yanking their kids out of district schools.
To what does Kayser attribute this exodus? He dismisses the academic achievements cited by parents. “Charter schools have spent money to brand themselves and market themselves. I think if the same effort were being made by public schools, they would be much more popular.”
The intent of charter schools is to not only provide a choice to parents who couldn't afford private school but also, as in any free market, to experiment and innovate — and force the school districts to compete and adopt their best practices.
That has largely happened here. LAUSD has given more local control to schools and converted others into “pilot” schools run by LAUSD employees but using innovative ideas. And LAUSD has improved its test scores and graduation rates.
But in Kayser's worldview, charters are “not doing any innovation anymore.” He wants to convert every charter to an LAUSD-controlled “pilot” school, giving them certain freedoms but not full independence. However, state law wouldn't allow that radical move.