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Making charters measure up

November 14, 2008|Tamar Galatzan | Tamar Galatzan represents District 3 on the Los Angeles Board of Education. She was first elected to the board in 2007.

When historians write the story of public education in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 21st century, they may well dub this the Decade of the Charter. Since 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District has added about 120 independent charter schools and another 12 that are affiliated with the LAUSD -- more than any other district in the country.

Last month, the L.A. Unified Board of Education's Charters and Innovation Committee finally kick-started its attempt to catch up to this exploding movement. It began discussing how to revamp the policies that govern such schools, with the expectation that recommendations will come to the full board for a vote next spring.

This debate marks a pivotal point. As a school board member since July 2007, I have been extremely uncomfortable with the loose and inconsistent manner in which we consider charters for approval or renewal. But without a strong policy on the books, the board has little alternative. If the district and the board don't adopt a strong and fair-minded policy that reflects well-considered instructional priorities, the credibility of the charter movement in this city could be severely damaged in the years to come.

Most egregiously, the district has never clearly defined the educational mission of charter schools. For example, if School A proposes a Swedish/English dual-language program, and School B is geared toward getting recent dropouts back in school, should we grant both charters? Under the current policy, our students' needs aren't driving such decisions, and most new charters just get approved.

Our so-called standards for judging charters' academic performance are hardly better. At a board meeting this year, I reluctantly voted to renew the charter of a school that was performing below stated expectations. Why? Only because the neighborhood schools were even worse. On another renewal, a colleague of mine shook her head and said a poorly performing charter school with 300 students was still better than a poorly performing comprehensive high school with 3,000.

But I am not convinced that such comparisons -- commonly used by the district -- are to the benefit of charter students. Charters should not be rewarded for simply out- performing their underachieving LAUSD counterparts. The philosophy of charter schools is based on accountability, and the district must hold them to their promises. Lack of accountability is not uncommon in the school district, but we cannot let it seep into the charter movement as well.

One more point to consider: Now that voters have passed the $7.2-billion school bond -- $450 million of which is slated for charter schools -- charters soon will be lining up for their share. Without a coherent charter policy, how can the district reasonably and equitably decide which applicants receive funds, and the amount?

Charters are already demanding buildings and classroom space, to which they are entitled under Proposition 39, passed by voters in 2000. But the LAUSD has more requests for rooms than space available, and everyone is angry about the manner in which the district allots what it can. The situation is such a mess that some people have proposed a moratorium on new charter schools. A policy that coherently delineates the rights of charters and noncharters under Proposition 39 would enable the district to more equitably and efficiently fulfill its legal requirements.

The LAUSD's next charter schools policy must up the ante. The guidelines should include mandatory academic benchmarks, a means of assessing whether innovation is in fact benefiting students and a non-intrusive mechanism for monitoring schools' financial health. It also must set out clear and fair standards for allocation of district space and resources.

Charters thrive on their reputation for sound fiscal management, educational excellence and the freedom to innovate. But their good standing will suffer in the eyes of the public if the market is flooded with schools that don't measure up.

It's time the district gets a good yardstick.

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