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SCOTT HARRIS

Fairness Takes a Recess in School Debate

August 19, 1993|SCOTT HARRIS

If you're a politician whose career depends on the kindness and understanding of the San Fernando Valley, one of the stupidest things you can do these days is jump to the defense of the little-loved Los Angeles Unified School District.

Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) is the latest to have decided to ride the political windstorm of anti-LAUSD sentiment. Until recently, Katz was considered perhaps the Valley's most influential opponent of the proposed breakup of the LAUSD. Now he's all for it.

So when an arcane financial dispute erupted recently between everybody's favorite Pacoima elementary school and the big, bad LAUSD, the assemblyman didn't just take sides. He all but accused district honchos of plotting the downfall of the old Vaughn Street School.

"What the downtown bureaucracy wants to do," Katz declared at a parents' meeting, "is make charter schools harder to function so they will be more likely to fail."

The Daily News ate it up. "Reform Sabotaged," asserted the headline on an editorial last Friday. The subhead bordered on the paranoid: "LAUSD's jealous bureaucrats undermine charter school efforts in order to protect a crumbling empire."

The editorial went on to portray the district as "a spurned lover who just can't take no and goodby for an answer." It described the district's treatment of the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, as the Pacoima charter school is now known, as "ugly, disturbing and all the more reason to support the breakup of the LAUSD bureaucracy."

Actually, the ugliest thing going on here is the cynical rhetoric intended to demonize the LAUSD to advance a political cause.

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Now, there are some very good reasons to consider the dismantling of massive LAUSD, such as the possibility that smaller districts will enhance community involvement. But the latest chapter in the remarkable saga of the school on Vaughn Street isn't one of them. It's just a honest disagreement. And if you don't believe me, perhaps you'll believe Yvonne Chan, Vaughn's principal.

Chan was a driving force in the crusade that has established Vaughn as the most ambitious of the LAUSD schools that this year were granted the quasi-independence of a charter school. Unlike other charter schools that are primarily concerned with curriculum, Vaughn has taken on the enormous burden of its finances and payroll.

Chan contends that Vaughn, as a charter school, is entitled to its full state allowance of $3,100 per pupil. So she was understandably upset when, just two days before payday, the district passed along funding equal to only $2,400 per pupil. Rather than accept the lower figure, Vaughn is pressing the district for the full amount.

So it certainly does sound as if Vaughn is getting the shaft.

But what needs to be understood is that under a court decree all 419 elementary schools in the LAUSD are authorized $2,800 per pupil. That amount is then further reduced by $400 per pupil to finance districtwide special education, busing and child development programs. Both primary and secondary schools bear these costs.

These facts--which suddenly put the district's position in a reasonable light--were glossed over by the Daily News.

There is one other issue: a discrepancy between the funding for primary and secondary schools. As LAUSD officials have been at pains to explain--and the Daily News editorial failed to note--high schools cost more to operate than elementary schools. Little kids rely more on textbooks, pencils and paper; older students are challenged more by microscopes and computers.

Yet Chan still says Vaughn is owed $3,100 per pupil. It's a dispute rooted in the fact that state law offers little guidance for the financial relationship between school districts and the charter schools.

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Actually, Vaughn merits at least some special treatment; that's what the charter school concept is all about. It seems strange, for example, that Vaughn loses $320 for special education programs when the school has its own special ed kids to teach. Chan, a very able advocate, intends to argue Vaughn's case for the full $3,100 today in a meeting with district officials.

Chan has engaged in some overheated rhetoric herself. But then it's her job to fight for Vaughn. Other schools should be so fortunate. And now Vaughn's principal wants to make it clear that she, for one, does not look upon district bureaucrats as a horde of meanies who are conspiring to put dunce caps on Vaughn's students. It is some of Vaughn's allies in politics and print who have distorted and exploited the issue toward selfish ends.

A case of sabotage? Hardly. The district and the charter schools simply have to make up the rules as they go along.

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