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Charter Schools: A Steep Learning Curve Awaits

July 27, 2003|Howard Blume | Howard Blume is a staff writer for LA Weekly.

It took a while, but the national rage over charter schools has finally come to town, as contagious as patriotism or SARS. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which once scorned charter schools, is suddenly approving charter petitions right and left. In the last year, the school district has approved 26 proposals for charter schools -- 16 of these will open this year. More are on the way. These schools will join the district's 36 existing charter schools.

While these schools clearly have something to offer Los Angeles, they have not been the panacea school-choice supporters claim them to be. As public schools of choice that are exempt from many provisions of the state Education Code, charter schools can take charge of academic programs, spending decisions and hiring. They are championed as laboratories of reform and accountability.

But in fact, in California, charter schools have been a mixed bag. A recent study by the Rand Corp. found "charter schools generally have comparable or slightly lower test scores than conventional public schools after adjusting for the ethnic and demographic characteristics of the students." Test scores are never the entire story about a school, but it's worth noting that the charter schools that are the most different -- the ones without the standard classroom-and-teacher setting -- also have problems with scores. Compared with conventional public schools, scores at these "nonclassroom-based" schools are lower "across the board," according to the Rand findings.

Of the state's 407 charter schools, about 120 are nonclassroom-based, serving a large proportion of independent-study students, many of them home schoolers. These students receive instruction primarily from their parents, with varying degrees of supervision from the charter school. Such schools include some of the largest charter operations in the state. Home-school families like the arrangement because they get free textbooks and other items, such as Internet access, that they formerly had to pay for.

School districts and private operators also have done well from the arrangement. For a while, some were making money as fast as they could pocket it. That's because they received the same per-student subsidy from the state as did bricks-and-mortar schools -- except that they didn't have to pay for buildings or food service or even classroom teachers. And while some of the home-school charter operators have been reputable -- even innovative -- others appear to have been pure profiteers.

Some of the practices that made home-school charters so profitable have now been banned by legislation. If a school has more than 20% non-classroom-based students, its expenses are reviewed by the state, and the per-pupil allotment can be lowered. And school districts can no longer collect huge commissions on student-attendance revenue generated by charter schools. Charter schools, for their part, are prohibited from charging tuition, as some did initially. Such practices were not the sort of innovation that legislators had in mind when they approved the charter schools act in 1992.

But even if Los Angeles embraces more traditional charter schools, it shouldn't expect miracles. Until its recent 180-degree turn, most of L.A.'s charter schools were charter in name only, and didn't really operate independently. Seventeen of these schools reverted to "regular" status as of July 1.

A handful of L.A. charter schools have distinguished themselves, including Vaughn Next Century Learning Center under Principal Yvonne Chan and Fenton Avenue Charter School under its executive director, Joe Lucente. Chan turned out to be a master manager and finagler of money, inaugurating a building spree that allowed her to lower class size, offer a health clinic and other social services, and extend both the school year and school day. But at the same time, she was slow to embrace phonics instruction -- she didn't have to, unlike schools under direct district control. As recently as 1999 -- after more than five years as a charter school -- her campus' test scores rated well below average compared with similar schools. To her credit, Chan has since turned that around, but a real accountability system could have shut her down if anyone had taken that part of the charter paradigm seriously.

At Fenton Avenue, Lucente assembled an array of corporate donors, who put his school at the forefront of computer technology. He had early success in raising test scores, and, all in all, he's shown what an unchained leader can achieve. Yet there is not a Joe Lucente to run every school. Nor are there enough corporations to go around as sponsors.

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