The sudden closure on Aug. 23 of the PUC iPrep Charter Academy in Eagle Rock disrupted the lives of 114 children who had started school there a few days earlier, provoking dismay and anger among their parents.
It has also intensified the debate in NELA over charter schools versus traditional public schools just as candidates prepare to run for the area’s open school-board seat.
The bare fact is that PUC iPrep closed because enrollment was too low for the school to make it financially. The school – which included kindergarten through second grade and grades 6-8 — wanted to enroll 275 students and, at a minimum, needed 200 students to attract enough government funding to operate successfully. It fell far short of its minimum goal – a stunning failure for PUC, which stands for Partnership to Uplift Communities, one of the largest charter-school networks in Los Angeles.
The deeper issue is what the low interest in iPrep may say about charter schools more broadly. The closure of iPrep was the first time that PUC had to close a school. But it was the second charter school to close recently in Eagle Rock. Celerity Rolas, an elementary and middle school, closed in July, also due to inadequate enrollment.
This suggests that many parents in and around Eagle Rock are generally satisfied with the area’s traditional public schools and relatively uninterested in charter school alternatives.
It also suggests that in areas with good schools like Eagle Rock, charter schools have begun competing with each other for students. That would be a problem, because the point of having a charter-school system is to create competition between it and an area’s traditional public schools. In places where charters compete with each other, the rationale – and expense – of having two systems is called into question.
It’s also possible that recruitment at schools run by PUC and Celerity has been hamstrung by high-profile scandals that have harmed their reputations for integrity and sound management.
Ref Rodriguez, the school board member for NELA who resigned in July after pleading guilty to campaign-related crimes, was a co-founder and executive of PUC; PUC has since accused Mr. Rodriguez of financial wrongdoing involving school accounts. (Mr. Rodriguez has denied the allegations). Celerity has taken a big blow to its finances and reputation stemming from federal investigations into its former chief executive, Vielka McFarlane, for alleged lavish, personal pending on credit cards belonging to Celerity’s charter schools.
Against that backdrop, the race for the Board District 5 seat vacated by Mr. Rodriguez is now officially on, with a special election set by the School Board for Mar. 5 and a runoff, if necessary, on May 14. The race will be crowded, with at least six people already having declared their candidacy or interest in running.
Until a new school Board member is elected, schools in NELA and other parts of District 5 will not have a representative on the School Board, which will be split between three members who are basically pro charter schools and three who are basically pro traditional public schools.
That’s a recipe for gridlock, but it’s also an opportunity for a new Board member to try to bridge the divide. The recent scandals indicate a need for more oversight of charter schools and the recent closings in Eagle Rock indicate a need to limit their spread in areas with strong traditional public schools. At the same time, parents in NELA and other parts of Board District 5 who prefer charter schools for their children often cite the greater helpfulness of charter schools in addressing their concerns, a trait that is worth fostering in the school system.