William Howard Taft Charter High School in the Woodland Hills district of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles gained affiliated charter status beginning with the 2013–2014 school year. Credit: Cbl62 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)The Los Angeles education reform organization known as Great Public Schools Now (GPSN) has recently provided a closer look into its plans for K-12 schools in the City of Angels, announcing $4.5 million in grants—to an expanding charter school, an after-school and summer program, and the local chapter of Teach For America.
GPSN grew out of a proposal from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to greatly expand the number of charter schools in Los Angeles, as well as other quality public schools, to serve at least half of the city’s public school children. At present, charters in L.A. serve more than 100,000 students. The Broad proposal received widespread attention in 2015 when it was leaked to the Los Angeles Times.
We've covered this effort closely because it represents one of the most ambitious bids yet to expand charter schools in a major U.S. city. It's further evidence that some heavy-hitting reform funders are doubling down on charters, even as other funders have gravitated toward different pathways for boosting student achievement, such as personalized learning. This push also underscores how charter funders have been focusing on transforming public education in a handful of cities, as opposed to spreading funding more widely. While just 5 percent of U.S. public school kids attend charters after years of activist funding—hardly an encouraging sign of the scalability of this reform approach—those numbers are much higher in certain high-poverty school districts such as Detroit, Washington, Kansas City, and New Orleans. Los Angeles is the biggest target yet for a sweeping charter drive.
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GPSN outlined its vision in a plan on its website, in which the organization described its plan as “community-centric,” focusing on improving schools without regard to a particular governance model or curricular orientation. GPSN plans to focus its reform efforts in southern and eastern Los Angeles, as well as a portion of the San Fernando Valley area. The organization is particularly interested in expanding educational options for low-income families. The plan states that more than 160,000 low-income students and English Language Learners attend low-performing schools in Los Angeles.
While GPSN outlines an ambitious vision, its plan, at only 15 pages in length, is light on details. Funding priorities identified in the blueprint are community outreach and engagement, teacher and leadership pipeline and support, facilities, and school replication grants.
The first $4.5 million in grants include $2 million for Equitas Academy Charter Schools, which serves the low-income Pico-Union area near downtown. Funding supports Equitas expansion into a third campus. Heart of Los Angeles, an after-school and summer enrichment program, will receive around $500,000. Meanwhile, the L.A. chapter of TFA is slated to receive $2 million, which will fund the training and support of 130 college graduates to teach in area schools.
Although GPSN describes its mission as focused on expanding the availability of quality public schools, regardless of whether they are charter, traditional, or otherwise, a look at its initial grant awards and key supporters suggest a preference for charters. GPSN’s board includes Gregory McGinty, executive director of the Broad Foundation; Marc Sternberg of the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation; and Allison Keller of the W.M. Keck Foundation. Walton and Keck were part of a meeting of major education funders convened by Broad to discuss a plan for expanding the number of charters in the city.
The 600,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest public school system, does not appear to be on GPSN’s funding radar, though the district could benefit indirectly through the funding to TFA, as many TFA interns teach in LAUSD schools. The city’s teachers union has been critical of the GPSN, while the district seems to be taking a “wait-and-see” approach. LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King has her own plan for improving L.A. schools due this summer, according to Education Week. As we've reported, the LAUSD has stepped up its search for private support to boost traditional schools.
GPSN says it is interested in education approaches that work, including any successful models in LAUSD. Whether its efforts will improve the district or undermine it by creating more schools that siphon away more students remains to be seen. What is certain is that all sides of the education reform debate should keep a close watch on events in the City of Angels as they unfold.