The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a major step, the Los Angeles school board calls for a moratorium on new charter schools

The Los Angeles Board of Education is calling on the California legislature to impose a moratorium on new charter schools, a remarkable shift by the pro-charter panel that struck a blow to the charter movement and may lead to stronger oversight of the schools.

The vote appears to signal an inflection point in the charter school debate in California, which has more charter schools and charter school students than any other state. California has allowed charters — which are publicly funded but privately operated — to flourish with little oversight amid growing controversy over financial scandals and other issues.

Charters have become a focus of activists around the country who say the schools provide families with options in districts with failing classrooms. Opponents, including the Los Angeles teachers union, say charters drain resources from the traditional schools that most students attend and encourage further privatization of an important civic institution.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a big supporter of charter schools, as are many of America’s wealthiest individuals, including billionaire Eli Broad, who several years ago promoted a plan to open enough charter schools in Los Angeles to serve at least half of the district’s more than 600,000 students.

But a growing number of education advocates and groups, including the NAACP, have called for a moratorium on charters until issues involving transparency and operations are resolved. California voters just elected a new schools superintendent, Tony Thurmond, who has said he wants to spend more money on traditional schools and stop the expansion of charters until concerns are addressed. He defeated a candidate who was supported by the charter lobby. Newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has emphasized his desire to spend more on schools within traditional public systems.

The Los Angeles school board resolution and vote — which happened Tuesday as pro-charter protesters picketed outside board headquarters — came out of last week’s agreement between the city’s school district and the teachers union. That pact ended a six-day strike by educators in the nation’s second-largest school district.

The school board voted Tuesday to ratify the strike-ending deal between the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles. The new contract provides teachers with 6 percent pay increases, more resources for schools and small reductions in class size.

The strike ended with other agreements, too, including what many saw as a surprising promise by the school district to support a state moratorium of up to 10 months on charter schools while the state studies their effects.

The Los Angeles Board of Education has six members, at least half of whom were elected with the help of financial support from the charter lobby. The district superintendent, Austin Beutner, is a former investment banker who is a charter backer.

“LAUSD has joined the NAACP and other key organizations in calling on the state of California for a moratorium on charters,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said in a statement. “This is a win for justice, transparency, and common sense. We need to invest in our existing schools, not follow a business model of unregulated growth when new schools are fundamentally not needed in L.A.”

Charter schools, which operate in most states and enroll 5 percent to 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren, are not required to operate under the same rules or release to the public the same information as traditional public schools.

Proponents say charters offer parents vital options in neighborhoods with failing district schools and that the substantial enrollment in Los Angeles — 20 percent of schoolchildren there are enrolled in charters — shows parents welcome the schools. The California Charter Schools Association bused students to the school board meeting to protest the resolution, and Nina Rees, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in a statement:

"It is not a progressive value to cut off high-quality public-school options to students, especially the large number of low-income students of color that charter schools serve in Los Angeles. We strongly oppose placing a moratorium on charter schools because it does not put students first. A vote for a moratorium on charter schools is a vote against students and a vote against families.”

Critics want the state legislature to revamp its charter laws to prevent repeated financial scandals and encroachment on local district authority. They also say many Los Angeles charter schools are not at capacity and that more charters are unnecessary.

A charter ban was part of the union’s rallying cry for public support, and it seems to have worked: The strike was viewed as popular among Los Angeles residents, and the school board is seeking a state moratorium.