Charter Schools Do-Over

Principal Karen Newlin reads to students at Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts, where the board recently eliminated a program that allowed some new parents to come on as "founders."

Los Angeles Unified School District officials have moved to close a loophole in the charter school admissions process in the wake of an Oct. 13 L.A. Weekly story — and a school featured in our story also has changed its policies.

The story, "On the List," detailed how Larchmont Charter and Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts gave enrollment priority to "founding parents." That designation allowed some parents to get around the admissions lottery, permitting publicly funded schools to behave more like private ones.

The founding-parent preference was intended to guarantee that parents who establish a charter school will be able to send their children there.

But at Larchmont and Los Feliz, school officials set up a program to allow preferred new founding parents, years after the schools opened. At Los Feliz, new founders were chosen based on their professional qualifications — for example, because they had a background in fundraising or architecture. Larchmont opted for parents who agreed to volunteer numerous hours and donate thousands of dollars. That offering proved so popular, the school was forced to adopt a first-come, first-served approach for founding-parent applications, setting up a literal race for parents to get their paperwork through the door.

Larchmont abandoned its founding-parent program after the L.A. Weekly questioned it. Less than a week after the story, Los Feliz scrapped its program as well.

"We thought, as a board, that as we move forward there needs to be a very clear playing field for everybody," said Juan Devis, a Los Feliz board member. "The real logic behind it didn't make any sense."

Although the board's vote was unanimous, not everybody was pleased with that outcome.

"They don't want to deal with the drama," said David Landau, a Los Feliz parent who ran the committee that screened applicants for founding-parent status.

"I'm really disgusted by what you've done," Landau told the Weekly. "You've done damage to our school."

Charter schools are public schools that are run independently, either by parent groups or by charter-management organizations such as Green Dot. If a charter gets more applications than it has spots available, state law requires it to hold a lottery.

Federal regulations permit only a few "preferences." One is for siblings of current students. Another is for children of staff, and a third is for founding parents.

The Weekly found that 65 of the district's 200 charter schools had some sort of preference for "founders" or "developers." But only two extended those preferences beyond the school's first year of operation.

Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, said she can understand granting a preference to parents who actually found a school. But if schools continue to grant preferences in subsequent years, she said, "That's way beyond what the spirit is (of the law).

"Charter schools are required to admit all students, just like public schools," she added. "If there are loopholes like that or clarifications that need to be made, it would be of interest to me to pursue that."

In recent years, Brownley has been trying to tighten financial regulations and transparency requirements on charter schools, especially in light of financial scandals.

Charters offer the promise of experimentation and innovative approaches to education. But there have been concerns, since charters were established in the 1990s, that they would become quasi-private schools, where highly motivated parents would find refugee from traditional public schools.

That's at the core of the concern over founding parents. By selecting parents with particular skill sets, or parents with time to put in extra volunteer hours, the schools start to behave more like private schools — which have competitive admissions processes. Such a policy could exclude children from less advantaged backgrounds.

In response to the Weekly story, L.A. Unified board member Bennett Kayser submitted a motion last week to establish a clear founding-parent policy and create a mechanism to enforce it. The board is expected to debate the motion Nov. 29.

"There's still some ambiguity to it that I'd like to see cleaned up," Kayser said. "There seems to be different ways to define what a founding family is or does, and I'd like to have a set of parameters for that."

Part of the difficulty is determining when a school is actually founded. Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts opened in 2006. But in an interview before the school changed its policy, co-founder George Abrams argued that the school had just changed locations and was still growing, and therefore needed to bring in new "founders."

"We're not founded yet," he said. "We're still completing construction on our media center. We're not a founded organization."

After the Weekly story ran, the California Charter Schools Association advised Los Feliz to eliminate its founding-parent program. The group — the leading advocacy organization for the state's charter schools — also issued a statement saying it opposes extending the founding-parent preference beyond the first year.

"To our knowledge, this is an isolated case," said Jed Wallace, president-CEO of the organization. "CCSA continues to provide guidance to charter schools to ensure that the policies implemented meet both the letter and spirit of the law."

L.A. Unified staffers have already begun to tighten up their enforcement on the issue, according to an Oct. 24 memo issued by Jose Cole-Gutierrez, director of the district's charter school division. In the memo, Cole-Gutierrez said that after the Weekly story was published, his staff checked up on Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts, as well as other schools, to give guidance on their founding-parent policies.

Previously, the district lacked a clear definition of the term "founding parent." In his memo, Cole-Gutierrez offered his thoughts: "Founding Families are a finite group of individuals that assisted with the opening of a charter school. Any practice of adding to this group for a school that has been in existence for several years, and is well past its founding, is not consistent with our definition of Founding Families."

Cole-Gutierrez, who was unavailable for a follow-up interview, stated in the memo that he would work with the district's lawyers to determine what additional enforcement might be needed.

According to the minutes of the Los Feliz Charter School board meeting on Oct. 19, some board members had qualms about the founding-parent program. Others were concerned about negative publicity. Board member Matthew Shenoda was most outspoken, saying the program was not ethical and might "alienate" potential volunteers. Gabrielle Samuels, on the other hand, argued that it was most important to "stabilize the rumors and gain control."

Devis, the only Los Feliz official to respond to a request for comment, said the school would get along fine with the volunteer support it receives from parents who come in through the regular lottery process.

"Founding parents perhaps were needed at one point for the sustainability of the school, though I question that," Devis said. "We need to trust that the population is coming to the school because they're engaged with the school."

Several L.A. Unified board members did not return phone calls. At this point, it's uncertain whether Kayser's motion has enough support to pass.


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