During the last few weeks, the Legislature has been debating whether a moratorium on public charter schools is the best way to help traditional school districts with their crippling financial problems.
As one of the elected leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District—California’s largest district and one certainly struggling to meet its financial obligations and the needs of families—I welcome the state’s help in tackling public education’s complex challenges.
But I don’t see a surplus of high-quality public school options as one of those challenges.
I see our teachers struggling to innovate due to rigid regulations. I see our schools vying for the basic resources they’re lacking due to inadequate state funding. And I see our most vulnerable students paying the price.
Rather than focusing on a decades-old political fight between charter and district schools, the Legislature should get to work on reforms that would help traditional school districts. This would naturally mitigate the growth of new schools because parents are satisfied, not because we’re placing an arbitrary cap on options for poor families.
- First, remove barriers that prevent traditional schools from innovating and improving.
Every year, schools and districts across the state apply for hundreds of waivers to the California Education Code—a 2,500-page behemoth of rules and red tape—just so they can tailor curricula to their students’ needs or exercise more flexibility on how best to use funds, like increasing instructional hours or deciding how best to staff schools.
The charter school movement was borne out of the idea that cutting red tape to allow schools more flexibility to innovate could produce better results for kids, granting them a “mega-waiver” from swaths of the regulations in the Education Code.
It was an experiment—and we have plenty of data about what has and hasn’t worked. But what we haven’t done is amend the Education Code so that all schools can receive the same extensive waivers to innovate in district schools.
- Second, increase education funding and equity by improving our student funding formula.
In addition to the critical need for more state funding—given that California ranks far from the top of states in per pupil funding—there are two adjustments to the current funding formula that would benefit large urban districts like Los Angeles.
Schools are funded by daily attendance, which unfairly penalizes districts that enroll harder-to-serve student populations, like students in foster care or experiencing homelessness.
Switching to an enrollment-based, as opposed to attendance-based, funding system would immediately help districts serving our highest-need children.
The state also funds special education separately by total student population, not by the percentage of students who actually have special needs. The state can make adjustments to reallocate funding for the benefit of these students.
- Third, help school districts address the systemic financial issues of rising costs for pensions, which is a state-run system, and retiree healthcare, which is a local challenge.
Following a 2012 state mandate that put a greater burden on employees and districts to contribute to the broken pension system, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget included some pension relief. But we are going to need broader reform so that we can pass those savings onto our teachers, principals, janitors, and bus drivers.
Although Los Angeles Unified and other school districts’ retiree healthcare challenges—an $11.2 billion unfunded liability in Los Angeles—are of local making, the state can creatively incentivize common sense reforms.
The Legislature is considering lowering the threshold for districts to pass a parcel tax from 67% to 55%. What if legislators instead offered this incentive: Make it easier to raise local revenue, but only for districts that work toward more meaningful and collaborative reforms?
In collaboration with our labor partners, Los Angeles Unified implemented a healthcare cost-saving measure, which preserves benefits while saving the district $50 million annually by transferring Medicare-eligible retirees and dependents to a nationwide plan.
The state should offer more of these win-win reforms to help districts address rising costs, like allowing district employees to opt into the state healthcare exchanges or mandating contribution-defined plans for new employees.
Legislators need to address the root of our fiscal and academic issues. That doesn’t include fueling an us vs. them narrative that pits school models against each other and vilifies low-income families that choose a better fit for their children’s education.
We can all agree that California’s public education system needs help from the state to improve academic outcomes for our future leaders.
But focusing on charter schools without creating solutions for district schools does a disservice to all our students who deserve the opportunity to succeed.
Nick Melvoin is a former teacher who has served on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education since July 2017. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.