GUEST COMMENTARY - We have all heard the tidy explanation: Charter schools are publicly funded and privately operated. But seldom discussed is the messy reality of how several charter corporations operate in Los Angeles. It’s time to name that mess and stop it from depriving students of the space, dollars, and opportunities they deserve.
Our city is the capital of co-location, a scheme permitted by a state ballot measure called Prop 39 more than 20 years ago. For the past 13 years, I have watched a charter corporation exploit co-location and lax oversight by L.A. Unified (LAUSD) to eat away at a beloved elementary school in Echo Park.
Logan Academy of Global Ecology just celebrated its 135th anniversary in April with a full-fledged party: food, live music, tributes by elected officials, and three generations of returning alumni. But Prop 39 has made the past decade quite harrowing for teachers, parents, and the hundreds of students at Logan.
At Logan, teachers are instructing, and children are learning in remodeled closets and storage rooms. They also are forced to use a section of the teachers’ lounge. Why? Because the Gabriella Charter Dance Academy arrived on campus like an onrushing mudslide in 2010, claiming space that was supposedly excess. How LAUSD has chosen to implement Prop 39 gives a charter program the right to encroach on public-school property if the public school has space on its campus deemed excess.
In 2010, days after Gabriella arrived at Logan, they ate up the school auditorium. They claimed it as their own, with no notice or permission from the school principal.
Gabriella Charter takes over Logan Auditorium with no notice or permission.
The founder of the Gabriella Charter Corporation stated she wanted to provide low-income children the opportunity to be exposed to dance. Logan students would be included in their dance program. Thirteen years later, however, no Logan student has been a participant in that program.
Sadly no one at LAUSD is keeping close track of exactly why a public school has excess space. In addition to aggressive use of space dubiously labeled “excess,” charter-school operators like Gabriella have also latched onto the slogan to “Support School Choice.” Choice, has tremendous value in a free society, including public schools. In LAUSD, parents have the right to send their child to a school of their choice.
But there are two very sticky, troubling problems with choice. First, should tax money support choice if it funnels money to private religious schools? What about the violation of separation of church and state? And how many taxpayers would be willing to contribute to schools run by the Holy Church of Wicca? Second, should tax money support schools run at the expense of children in public schools? That is what’s happening at Logan.
State disclosures show that Gabriella is not even a stellar program. Under the 2019 law AB 1505 that requires evaluation of charter schools, it was rated only “middle performing.”
That law, along with undue leniency toward charters by LAUSD, leaves another loophole: bad governance. Charter corporations lack and sometimes deny public access to voting by their board members on budgeting and major decisions.
Three weeks ago, I and a few teacher colleagues attended what Gabriella parents had been told would be that charter corporation’s board meeting. But we found out the meeting had been cancelled 20 minutes prior to the scheduled start. It turned into a Zoom meeting, but we did not have and were not given access to the link to get into the meeting, except for the public comment time.
This last-minute cancellation happened in the exact same way three years ago, just prior to the pandemic shutdown in March 2020. That was the last “public” meeting until three weeks ago.
I have an excellent solution to co-location and the harm it does to public schools. Why not grant two charter schools access to an unused public school where they can enjoy the benefits of each other’s company?
Thirteen years ago, when PAC MAN ate our gym, complaints by Logan parents to the school board helped liberate the auditorium. Pushback worked. Logan teachers and students got to use it again for school-day events and after-school functions.
Now that same spirit of protest is making a comeback. Thirteen years ago, most parents and educators did not know what co-location was or its threat to high-quality public education. We do now. Parents and educators are tired of mismanagement of charter corporations by LAUSD, which has even dropped the ball on collecting fees from charters for their use of school facilities. The free ride has to end. It’s time to learn a lesson from Logan and unplug PAC MAN. It’s time to invest in classrooms that serve all students. And it’s time to hold School Board Members accountable for exactly these priorities.
(Cheryl Ortega is a classroom teacher who has taught in public schools in communities on the Eastside of Los Angeles for more than 50 years. In 2022, she earned recognition by the East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD) as Educator of the Year in part for her advocacy for bilingual education and language access in and beyond school settings. Her letters to the Los Angeles Times, published on a regular basis, highlight the insights and joys of listening to and leading young learners.)