Welcome to the Los Angeles Education Examiner, your new source for news on public education in Los Angeles! We will address questions surrounding education in the vast LA region hoping to raise public consciousness about how things-educational matter to everyone here, day to day. We will host stories from other writers, do a weekly news roundup (this week’s was published yesterday) and produce our own original works around LAUSD, our teachers and our schools.

As it happens more public monies and control is exerted by the seven board members of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) from its downtown Los Angeles “Beaudry” headquarters than from across the 110/Harbor Freeway in LA’s City Hall. Join us for considerations ranging from what you need to know about simply “going to school” today, to analysis of why it all matters on a local and statewide level, whether you are student, parent or taxpayer.

The largest school district in California is the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), but the entirety of Los Angeles County (LAC) enrolls nearly two-and-a-half times as many students as attend LAUSD. There are 88 school districts within LAC, ranging in size from one school of 196 pupils (in 2018/19) to the giant LAUSD with over a thousand schools and well over a half-million students. Its largest (Granada Hills Charter High) school alone enrolls nearly 4700 pupils. See figure 1 to trace LAUSD’s overall enrollment in graded and “traditional” schools (see below for definitions) since 1981. Enrollment has declined steadily since 2003/04 with a high of 747K students. Current enrollment of approximately 600K approaches that of three decades past.

Figure 1:  LAUSD long-term enrollment in graded and traditional school types from 1981-2019

Many “fingertip facts” about LAUSD can be found here, including a list of municipalities adjacent to Los Angeles that are governed by LAUSD whether in whole or in part. Many different school “types” are listed but the full array is complicated and multidimensional. It is important to understand the extent of the system which includes our own singular, local school.

The most common distinction between school types is simply on the basis of student’s age or grade. Modern schools are differentiated as elementary (ES), middle (MS), and high schools (HS). Within LAUSD some campuses also operate as “Span” schools including a configuration of grades spanning {ES and MS}, {MS and HS} or some combination of all three levels.

In contrast to these “traditional” school types, LAUSD operates a set of “Options” schools according to State of California Education Code (state law pertaining to Education) as “Alternative Schools and Programs of Choice”. These ‘alternative’ schools differ on the basis of curriculum or environmental circumstances affecting students. The terminology is confounding because in 2009 a “Public School Choiceinitiative (PSC) was adopted by the LAUSD school board (BOE) addressing school autonomy and management (see below). Thus there are two kinds of school ‘choices’ – ‘functional’ tied to the special needs of students and reflecting different curricula (“alternative”); and ‘operational’ tied to governance and reflecting administrative and managerial differences.

Options” schools include at-risk programs for students who may be habitually truant (“Opportunity Schools”), challenged by attendance (“Community Day Schools”), or graduation and credit issues (“Continuation Schools”), or constrained by the legal system (“Juvenile Court Schools”); there are programs for independent and home/hospital study, as well as students who have missed an extended period of school. In addition LAUSD operates special education, adult, occupational and pre-schools.

In a different contrast, the wake of 2009’s PSC resolution mandates operation of some poorly-performing (“focus”) LAUSD District schools (traditional and alternative), under three autonomous school models designed to “improve school performance and increase student achievement through innovative, efficient, and rigorous school plans”. The three models are “Expanded School Based Management”, “Local Initiative” and “Pilot” schools. This is a distinction largely hidden to parents and therefore not typically a basis for school selection, but may affect family interactions with school management, its governance and councils. A list of these schools and their associated proposals under PSC may be viewed here.

The school types most familiar in name even while misunderstood in concept are “magnets” and “charters”. Magnet schools are an integration program that provide theme-based instruction. Found among both LAUSD’s traditional and alternative schools; in District and Charter school types (see below); and only rarely for specifically identified “gifted and talented” (GATE) students, these schools are not focused on instructional excellence but instead on ethnic diversity.  How magnets are distributed among school types is presented in the first figure of the demographic article LAUSD By Some Numbers; the relationship of charter school fiscal affiliation (see below) and poverty status is explored toward the end of the article. While popular reputation seems to regard magnets as schools of excellence, this is not a quality that is selected by design.

In contrast charter schools, in keeping with the PSC movement, arise from an explicit goal to cure the declared “failure” of public schools. Themselves supported by public tax dollars and therefore termed “public schools”, charter schools are governed not by public sector employees, but in LAUSD at least, by not-for-profit entities operating outside of the public Education Code. Some teachers are credentialed, many are not; some teachers are represented by collective bargaining units, most are not. Until recently charter schools were not governed by public sunshine laws ensuring transparency of operations and communications. While chartered and overseen by District personnel, charter schools recapitulate the District’s centralized management, operating essentially as an encapsulated District of their own. This sub-district can include just a solitary charter school or a small network of grouped charter “franchises”, under the management of a “charter management group” (CMG) or operator (CMO). These mini-districts are explicitly ideologically aligned more with the business- than the public-sector.

Arising de novo or converted from a traditional District school, LAUSD charters are themselves differentiated by their fiscal management. If funded directly through the State, a mini-district’s schools are considered “independent charters”. If instead the mini-district’s finances are controlled by its chartering agency, LAUSD, the mini-district is considered “[fiscally] dependent” or “affiliated”.

Similar to magnet schools which utilize a lottery to diversify enrollment, charter schools may employ a lottery to manage enrollment capped by capacity. Rarely some charter lotteries are weighted to achieve a specialized enrollment distribution, but most charter schools are under-subscribed and not reliant on a waitlist or lottery system at all. Though both charter and magnet school enrollment is managed centrally online via LAUSD’s unified enrollment.

Finally, a hybrid ‘public-private partnership’ analogous in function to CMOs selected through the PSC process to “support under-performing schools”, manages a collection of District schools as the “Partnership for LA Schools (PLAS)”. Developed prior to PSC by Antonio Villaraigosa in order to transform LA’s public schools via mayoral rather than LAUSD control, PLAS is subject to different accountability from schools reconstituted through PSC, while analogously invoking a transformative operating model toward the goal of raising test scores.

Throughout the district are innumerable programs that may attract families specifically without being a categorical school type. Dual-language and different language immersion programs of varying design and concentration, for example, have grown in popularity and numbers recently; there are others (see fingertip facts linked above).

The quest for excellence and the “best” for one’s own is a pretty universal drive. A vast public agency is able to support hugely diverse educational opportunities across the region. Patterns are hard to discern even while just knowing what is happening down the block in your own neighborhood school can be challenging, too. We hope to harness the eyes and ears of neighbors like you in reporting educational news at your own schoolsite or beyond, with political and pedagogical implications far and near. Please contact us if you have news to share – observed, overheard or uncovered. We want to be here for you and are looking forward to your contributions!

Please reach Sara at sara@la-edex,org; and Damien at damien@la-edex.org.