LISTENING RECENTLY to Steve Barr, the charter school movement's fair-haired boy and founder of the ever-expanding Green Dot Public Schools company, you'd think that the Los Angeles Unified School District is on a mission to kill charter schools. "Now we're outsiders," Barr fumed March 29, after the school board initially rejected his plan for eight new schools in South Los Angeles. "I really have a hard time finding any reason to continue talking with this district."
But the school board's spine softened last week, and the new Green Dot schools got the OK to open in 2008. That's more like the way the district has been operating: rubber-stamping new charters left and right. It continues this way at its own peril.
L.A. Unified, the second-largest school district in the country, is the epicenter of the burgeoning charter movement. The district already has more than 100 charter schools, and about 5% of its students are enrolled in them.
Charter schools, which were authorized by state legislation in 1992, are touted as models of innovative education, publicly financed but free of many restrictions placed on conventional public schools. The LAUSD authorized its first charter in 1993. The number grew slowly until 2001, then escalated dramatically. An overly enthusiastic Barr anticipates that by 2016, 75% of LAUSD pupils will be in charters.
Anyone can play superintendent. The request can be rejected only if the petitioner doesn't have a feasible educational program or sufficient financial resources to get a school started -- which seems to be why the school board changed course on Green Dot last week. Only the most questionable proposals are denied, such as a 1997 request to the LAUSD for a charter based on L. Ron Hubbard's educational theories.
California law even pays charters to home-school kids. How long before some wag suggests that we simply shut down all public schools and home-school everyone?
Critics often suggest that it's teachers unions that stand in the way of progress, opposing charters and their innovations -- even though it's teachers who have for years demanded freedom to innovate in the classroom. But any union opposition to charters largely evaporated in 2000. To gain support for passage of a ballot measure lowering the percentage of votes required to pass school bonds, the union's successful initiative contained wording allowing charters to receive bond money.
So now, under Proposition 39, districts provide charters with bond money for construction. And, like conventional schools, they receive state funding. Charters also twist arms at local school boards to gain multimillion-dollar loans.
And what do taxpayers get in return? A growing fight over education money and schools that are, at best, unorthodox.
The most controversial is surely Academia Semillas del Pueblo in El Sereno. Last year, right-wing blogs and radio raised an outcry because of reports that it promoted a Latino-separatist agenda and taught the indigenous Mexican language Nahuatl and Aztec mathematics. The school, where test scores haven't risen in five years, nonetheless got its charter renewed last month. The Accelerated School, a South Los Angeles charter school, was among the first to try Yoga Ed., a yoga-based program developed, critics claim, by a "New Age nut out to brainwash young minds."
Curriculum disputes aside, a continuing statewide scandal has revealed misused funds and loan defaults. The Accelerated School defaulted on a multimillion-dollar LAUSD loan. Gorman Charter, which operates in Los Angeles and surrounding counties, was cited for misuse of $7.7 million after an audit. Other for-profit charters, where owners were lining their pockets, have been shut by the state and county.
Can charter schools in Los Angeles do a better job than conventional ones? A good deal of anecdotal evidence inflates charter schools' accomplishments. But test scores raise doubts.
The 2006 Academic Performance Index incorporates standardized test results into a school score between 200 and 1,000. The statewide average, for grades 2-11, is 721. LAUSD conventional schools, with 95% of the district's students, scored 700. LAUSD charters, with only 5%, did only slightly better at 708. That's an insignificant difference considering that charters have a select clientele, siphoning off kids with the most-engaged parents.
Charter mania won't end soon. Too many advocates benefit from the system. Leftists see charters as a way to promote their agenda. Right-wingers use them to advance 19th century educational theories.
But in our zeal to try something new, we've created a competing educational system that is largely unregulated and potentially disastrous. Turning over our schools to self-proclaimed reformers and for-profit business is a sure-fire way to end California's proud history of free, universal public education.