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The war on school choice in California

By   /   March 28, 2016  /   No Comments

Currently the 15th friendliest state for school choice, California’s educational establishment is fighting back. While the battle against charter schools continues to rage, the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) has recently denied parents the right to a parent trigger option, throwing the law into jeopardy.

The number of charter schools in California has grown from 177 in 1998 to 1,230 in 2015, and they have set a goal to enroll another million students by 2022 to meet the demand of growing waiting lists. Success is meeting heavy opposition from certain groups, one of which is looking to  shut down every charter school in the state. Several school districts have encouraged the state to intervene, asking for a more hostile environment for the approval of new charter schools. On a local level, teachers union United Teachers Los Angeles is fighting against charter schools as they lose members attracted to innovative options. Meanwhile the entire charter school authorization process is, in the words of some charter school advocates, “broken.”

School districts have filed three lawsuits in Los Angeles County (with another three in San Diego) over charter schools, in which they claim that schools are in violation of the Charter Schools Act of 1992. Charter school director Jennifer Cauzza said that the schools are operating legally, and this is all about the bottom line for the school districts. “In my opinion, charters have hit the “tipping point” where we’re taking enough students that traditional public schools are beginning to feel the financial effects, and they have been using their reserves to help offset the fiscal impact,” says Cauzza.  “Now they are looking at it long term and see that it can have drastic impacts over the next five years if the charter movement continues at this rate.”

But charter schools aren’t the only thing threatening the status quo and, therefore, they’re not the only front in the battle being waged against school choice in California.

The parent trigger law is a way for parents to make significant changes to school governance. If enough parents agree to “pull the trigger” on a poorly performing school, this law gives them the ability to make changes to staff, or even to turn a traditional public school into a charter. The first successful use of the parent trigger was in Adelanto in 2012, a move that was challenged and went all the way to the state Supreme Court. Parent trigger decisions have never been accepted by school districts without bitter fights, but LAUSD has now taken it one step further by simply refusing to accept one earlier this month.

“This is shameful,” said former California state Sen. Gloria Romero, who authored the law, after reading the district’s letter. “They have a brand new superintendent and she is harking to the past, in a sense. Where is the leadership? It’s supposed to be a new game with LA being unified. This does not bode well for the spirit of the law.”

The educational status quo is being threatened by flexible solutions that are meeting the needs of families in ways that traditional public schools do not. Stuck in a bureaucratic, unionized past, school districts are looking to strong-arm these options away from families rather than grow with the educational opportunities that are becoming available.


Amelia Hamilton was a former Watchdog.org education correspondent.