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Don't Bully Charter Schools

September 29, 2003

Given its financial straits, you could hardly blame the Los Angeles Unified School District for trying to squeeze more money out of its small but feisty corps of charter schools. But nickel-and-diming these former LAUSD campuses will do little to close the district's yawning budget gap and lots to further the perception that officials feel threatened by the prospect of the charters' success.

The half-dozen campuses that have switched to charter status were shocked this year by a host of new charges on their annual district bills: increases in assessments for such things as special education, retirees' health benefits and workers' comp insurance. District officials say they simply adjusted funding formulas to reflect the financial advantage the state gives charters and to avoid putting the giant system in a financial hammerlock as more campuses opt out of the LAUSD.

But charter school principals suspect that the district -- stung by the recent defection of suburban high schools in Granada Hills and Pacific Palisades -- is trying to discourage campuses from becoming charters. "It's like they're just dreaming up things for us to pay," complained Yvonne Chan, whose 1,500-student Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima was the first district campus to gain charter status 10 years ago and has become a model of economy and innovation. Her school was assessed $800,000 more this year than last -- 8% of its $10-million budget. "They can't even tell me what I'm getting for that. The bills come with no explanation. They've shut us out and won't talk about it."

That makes the issue about more than money; it's the message that such treatment delivers. After all, part of the promise of the charter movement is rooted in the notion of collaboration between independent schools and their sponsoring public systems. Charter schools were envisioned as laboratories for innovation. Freed from bureaucracy, they could experiment with new ways to reach children, and what they learned could benefit other campuses. But that can happen only if school districts treat them as partners, not competition.

The LAUSD is not alone in its disengagement. A state audit last fall of districts in Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and Fresno found that though they collected more than $2 million in "oversight" fees from charters, they did little to keep track of the schools' academic performance or financial standing.

The good news is that LAUSD officials acknowledge their shortcomings and promise to strengthen efforts to monitor and support charters. "We're going to build bridges," promised Assistant Supt. Jean Brown, just assigned to supervise the charter office, which had been leaderless for months. New staff will be added to offer guidance to prospective charters and study practices of current ones. The bad news? The first new staffers assigned to the office are lawyers.

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