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Facing The Music: KPCC/LAist Investigation Explores The Uncertain Future of an OC Performing Arts School

Ballroom dance class at the Orange County School of the Arts.
Ballroom dance class at the Orange County School of the Arts.
Chava Sanchez/LAist

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A nearly 20-year relationship gone sour. Finger-pointing over who's at fault. Hurt feelings and high emotions all around. Lawyers, of course. And children — lots of them — caught in the middle of the potential split.

The disgruntled partners: Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) and the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD). Their fight could bring down the curtain on one of Southern California's most popular — yet highly controversial — charter schools. The school boasts a high graduation rate and an alumni roster filled with Hollywood celebrities and working artists. The criticisms come down to who has access to that education and who has been shut out. It's also what's drawing a new level of scrutiny from Santa Ana Unified. Last fall, OCSA applied to renew its charter with SAUSD, something state rules require must be done every five years. The district staff responded with a scathing 37-page report that found the schools "admission/enrollment policies and practices have encouraged applications from high achieving and well-resourced students and discouraged applications from those in the under-represented protected classifications” and that the numbers of "Hispanic/Latino, English Learners" and low-income students were so small at OCSA, it was impossible to meaningfully compare achievement to other district schools. While district officials openly say that OCSA is a high-quality school, they also say its policies exclude local, mostly Latino students while welcoming a wealthier, whiter student body that isn't reflective of Santa Ana. The district's recommendation to the Santa Ana Unified board: The findings could support denying the charter renewal.

The board decided not to go as far as denial — instead, board members went with another recommended course: Vote to renew OCSA's charter on the condition that the school work with the district to correct the alleged violations. OCSA reacted swiftly, and fiercely. The school's founder said the pushback from the district is payback over a lawsuit OCSA filed against the district last year over special education funding. He also said there was nothing for OCSA to correct. So the school stopped trying to work it out with the district, and started looking for another oversight agency. Now, the issue is in the hands of the Orange County Board of Education, the body charged with taking up appeals of charters denied by their local authorizers. They don't have long to make a decision — OCSA's current charter expires on June 30. The Orange County Department of Education recommended last week that the charter be renewed, but only if OCSA addressed the issues with admissions policies and fundraising practices.

Today on AirTalk, we’ll talk with KPCC arts education reporter Carla Javier about her reporting on the story, how the situation got to where it is now, and what happens next. If you’re a member of the OCSA community, we’d like to hear from you. Join our live conversation by calling 866-893-5722.

For the full story from LAist, click here.

We invited Orange County School of the Arts to participate but they declined our request. We also invited Santa Ana School District to join us, but we have yet to receive a response. We will update if we hear from them.


Carla Javier, KPCC/LAist reporter covering arts education whose latest piece for LAist is “Facing The Music: The Uncertain Future of the Orange County School of the Arts”; she tweets @carlamjavier

Tony Marcano, KPCC education editor; he tweets @Marcano_Tony

Mark LeVine, professor of history at UC Irvine and the parent of an Orange County School of the Arts alumnus