August 10, 2015; Los Angeles Times

A high-profile education foundation in Los Angeles is talking about a major expansion of charter schools in the city, with the goal of boosting academic achievement for students at the lowest performing public school campuses.

The Los Angeles Times reports that charter school leaders have met with officials from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation about the effort, which also involves the Keck Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and other organizations that support charters. The Broad Foundation told the paper that the charter plan is in an early, exploratory phase, and would not discuss funding commitments.

The Times quotes people who attended the meetings, where organizers displayed maps showing L.A. neighborhoods where thousands of students are going to underperforming public schools. An expansion of charter schools would be expensive and probably generate a lot of political opposition.

One source told the paper that the goal was to enroll half of all Los Angeles students in charter schools over the next eight years, perhaps beginning with the enrollment of half of all students currently at schools with low test scores. The cost is estimated to be $450 million.

Today, more than 100,000 L.A. students attend charters, about 16 percent of district enrollment. L.A. Unified has 207 charters, with more charter students than any other school district in the U.S. Charters are exempt from many rules that govern traditional schools, and most are non-union.

The concept has generated a good deal of support and excitement from charter school operators, including Green Dot and ICEF. But the L.A. teachers’ union, a longtime adversary of Eli Broad, accused the philanthropist of repeatedly trying to weaken the “input of teachers over how education is run in their schools.”

School Board President Steve Zimmer said that “while some charters serve students well, a rapid expansion could undermine the district’s own school improvement efforts.” He told the Times that because L.A. Unified enrolls students who are more difficult and expensive to educate than those at charters, those students would be left with fewer resources if there were a dramatic exodus to charters.

The proposal would need funding for classroom space and the early administrative costs of new charters, as well as for training teachers and administrators. Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates for stints in charter schools, has been approached about providing instructors.

Charters were a key issue in this year’s school board elections—a charter-backed political action committee spent more than any other interest group. The result was that they got an ally, a charter co-founder, elected to the board.

Charters generate substantial philanthropic and bipartisan political support but are vociferously opposed by critics, including teachers’ union leaders. In L.A., they have clashed with the district over access to classrooms and resources. Charters suffered a setback when the former superintendent resigned under pressure last fall; he now works for the Broad Foundation.

Some speculate that his departure may have been a catalyst for Broad to pursue an aggressive strategy outside the school system.—Larry Kaplan