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School District Chokehold

May 11, 2003

Eight years ago, faculty, parents and students at Granada Hills High School came up with a tough new attendance policy, giving Fs to students who cut classes often without excuses. The policy helped to boost grades and attendance at the 3,800-student campus and brought in millions of dollars of extra state funding based on attendance.

No way, said Los Angeles Unified School District officials. They ordered the West Valley school to drop its attendance policy this year, saying state rules let only the district, not individual schools, set attendance policy. The problem is, the district has no formal attendance policy.

This kind of utter nonsense drove all but two of 123 Granada Hills teachers, the school's dynamic principal and at least 1,000 parents into the arms of the charter school movement.

Under California law, charter status allows public schools to have administrative and/or financial autonomy in a school district. But first, the district has to agree to relinquish its power over the school that wants to be free. There's the rub.

Granada Hills' charter school proposal, along with nine others, comes before the school board Tuesday. Charter status frees schools from much of California's strangulating education code and from many district rules, letting them pursue their own curriculum and policies. But that freedom is a threat to teachers union leaders and school board members who want to maintain their fiefdoms.

District officials also worry that charter schools help students whose parents and teachers are already motivated to do better, leaving many other kids to stagnate at mediocre schools. A valid concern, but who's to blame for all those mediocre schools?

And instead of planning how to monitor charters to ensure that experimentation doesn't shortchange students, school board members and district staff are nit-picking the proposals before them. We're not sure we can approve Granada Hills' plan, they fret. The plan is missing a schedule for when the class bells should ring, they say. Parents don't know whether to laugh or cry at this stupefying bureaucratic mind-set.

No wonder Granada Hills wants to wrench itself free of such lunacy. The Los Angeles school board should grant charter status to Granada Hills and demonstrate that improved performance -- not district control of a vast, dysfunctional realm -- is what really matters in the public schools.

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