A Failing Charter Hides Behind COVID-19
Prepa Tec Los Angeles High charter school was failing academically and fiscally before the pandemic. Why is the LAUSD giving them a pass?
“Based on a comprehensive review and assessment of [Prepa Tec Los Angeles High] Charter School’s renewal petition application and its record of performance, [the] staff has determined that Charter School has met the requirements set forth in the Education Code for denial.”
- LAUSD Charter School Division
Prepa Tec Los Angeles High is an example of the weakness in the laws establishing charter schools in California. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was so concerned about the proposed management of this charter school that the board unanimously denied its approval in 2015. This decision was appealed to the Los Angeles County Office of Education which has a reputation for approving poorly performing schools. Even this board unanimously rejected the appeal. However, the state charter advisory commission, which included the Executive Directors of Granada Hills Charter and the North Valley Military Academy, overturned these decisions and authorized the charter.
While the state was willing to overturn local authorities and allow the charter to operate, it does not appear that they put any effort into overseeing its operations. Much of the data that should have been obtained in annual oversight visits is missing from a report from LAUSD’s Charter School Division (CSD)’s evaluating the current condition of the school. What is available is damning.
According to the CSD’s report, Prepa Tec has been “designated by the state as Middle performing”. This seems like a generous description as the School Accountability Report Card (SARC) shows that only 24.47% of the school’s students met or exceeded the state’s standards in English Language Arts and literacy. In mathematics, only 3.26% of students met this threshold. With scores this low, the school should be defending itself against immediate closure, not asking to remain open another five years.
The CSD notes that Prepa Tech has “been in “poor fiscal condition” since the school’s first year of operation”. As of the end of the 2019–2020 school year, the charter school is $485,718 in debt and has no cash reserves. “The CDE (California Department of Education) notes that a negative year-end fund balance could jeopardize PTLAH’s fiscal sustainability since the school’s liabilities could not be satisfied even if all of PTLAH’s assets were liquidated.” If the LAUSD were to approve this school, then they could become responsible for these debts if creditors were able to prove that oversight was not done in accordance with the law. One argument that could be made is that the CSD recommended approval of the charter renewal despite the clear indications that it should be rejected.
Not surprisingly, parents have not rushed to place their children in this school. In 2016, the state authorized a student body size of 672 students, but this was reduced to 520 students in a Material Revision dated September 14, 2017. According to the 2018–19 SARC report, only 288 students are enrolled.
With the original five-year term of the charter coming to an end, Prepa Tec has submitted a request for renewal to the LAUSD. Despite all of these deficiencies and a recognition that this charter school “has met the requirements set forth in the Education Code for denial”, the CSD has recommended that the charter for Prepa Tec be renewed conditionally for the next five years. Despite the fact that the school was failing long before the start of the pandemic, the bureaucrats at the LAUSD have determined that an exception should be made “based on the current unprecedented circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
While COVID-19 does create “unanticipated challenges to [the] closure of schools”, this is a problem for adults, not the students attending a failing charter school or the students of the LAUSD who lose education funding for every student that leaves the district. It is also a problem that the LAUSD will not have to deal with as Prepa Tech is currently under the jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Education.
We should “also [be] mindful of the need for stability and to avoid disruption to each student’s educational program during these specific times”, but keeping these students in a program where only 3.26% of students are proficient in math should be the greater concern. The CSD says that we “need to avoid disruption to each student’s educational program”, but this program needs to be disrupted immediately.
The CSD attempts to alleviate concerns by stating that they “will initiate revocation proceedings” if Prepa Tec fails “to meet the conditions of the renewal”. However, any faith in the CSD’s willingness to do so is quickly lost when just one page later the bureaucrats water the promise down by stating that “the District may initiate revocation proceedings at any point if the charter school is classified as Low performing”. They also state that “the District may initiate revocation proceedings” if Prepa Tec fails to abide by any conditions outlined in the renewal report. “May” is not an appropriate substitution for “will” when a failing school is given a final chance that they have not earned.
Advocates for public education lobbied for many years to get the reforms provided by AB1505. With these tools for accountability in place, the LAUSD Board needs to use them.
Prepa Tec has clearly failed. The vote against renewal should be the same as the vote to reject them in the first place — unanimous.
Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD’s CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a “strong supporter of public schools.” For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.