June 15, 2016; Los Angeles Times

This week, we learned more about an ambitious and highly controversial effort to transform Los Angeles’s public school system that will test the limits of its public-private partnership.

Last August, we first learned that several major foundations, including the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Keck Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, were developing a $450 million plan with a goal “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.” Even for a district that already has 16 percent of its students in charters, this would be a dramatic change.

The proposal drew fire from many directions and did not receive support from the district’s elected school board. Taking note of the criticisms they received, backers of this proposal say they went back to their drawing board and developed a new strategy, which they released last week. They will now focus their efforts on 10 neighborhoods they identified as having the greatest need, and their strategy will be to identify high performing schools and work to replicate their efforts for broader impact.

According to the L.A. Times, funds raised will “provide classroom space—a key need for charters. It also will give new schools money to operate until state funding, based on a school’s full enrollment, is sufficient to carry costs. Other grants could go to training teachers and principals and to expanding enrollment at existing schools.” Dramatic expansion of charter schools is no longer a stated goal.

To accomplish these new objectives, a new nonprofit organization was formed. Great Public Schools Now is now in place to move forward with a vision “dedicated to ensuring all Los Angeles students receive a high-quality education by accelerating the growth of high-quality public schools.”

With the power and resources of its supporters, GPSN seems to see itself as an alternative school board. GPSN will “fund the growth of high-quality public schools in high-need Los Angeles neighborhoods… help support the growth of schools… fund the identification and development of new charter school facilities… recruit and prepare public school teachers and provide support and coaching to public school leaders…[and] deepen conversations between educators and families to create more collaboration and public participation in creating more high-quality public schools.”

It is not clear how this strategy and the investments that will support it will be coordinated with the school district’s overall efforts. At best, great things can emerge from this public-private partnership. At worst, we are seeing the emergence of parallel public school systems in which not all children are equal. Thomas Toch, a research fellow specializing in education policy at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, described one danger to be avoided:

When you’re going to create new choices for families at the scale that this initiative is envisioning, you have to insure there is equity built into the system. You have to make sure that all of these publicly funded schools function not as individual islands but as a system that insures that all students get a good education.

Responsibility for every child within its borders lies with the district’s elected school board. They will now need to contend with a heavily resourced GPSN guided by a self-appointed board of seven, which includes Marc Sternberg, a former New York City schools official who heads the K–12 efforts of the Walton Family Foundation, one of the nation’s leading incubators of charter schools, and Gregory McGinity, who “sits on the board of the California Charter Schools Assn. and is executive director of the Broad Foundation, which has made growing the number of charters a major focus.”

The specific funders who are backing GPSN remain a mystery, and the specific budget they will have to invest is also unknown.

The benefit of this new effort will hinge on how effectively the two bodies can coordinate efforts. If GPSN sees its real mission as replacing traditional public schools with a system of private schools paid for with public funds, we are heading for some tough times in L.A., with children caught in the middle. If they can coordinate their efforts fully with the school district’s leadership, there’s great good they can do.

But the initial signs do not bode well. The impact of new charters on funding is a known problem for public school districts; a solution is necessary to avoid creating a two-tiered system. GPSN’s approach doesn’t sound like they are looking to coordinate before acting.

The group’s board members dismissed concerns that the rapid movement of students to charters could lead to a financial crisis in L.A. Unified, shrinking its budget as it struggles with long-term pension and healthcare obligations. “To just say we’re going to continue to have failing schools because we can’t afford the district to lose more money, that’s immoral,” [a GPSN board member] said.

Giving support to the idea that this is overwhelmingly being treated as a campaign to be won, GPSN has launched an advertising effort redolent of a political race, calling out the district’s failure to provide a quality education to more than 160,000 students. Clearly, the students of L.A.’s schools deserve more than this.—Martin Levine