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Policy skirmishing puts LAUSD reform at risk

Disputes by charter operators over boundaries and parents over where reforms are targeted first are threatening the Public School Choice initiative.

November 02, 2009

It's back to business as usual at the Los Angeles Unified School District, and that's not a good thing. The district's potentially transformational initiative to open about 250 schools to outside management is in danger of being undermined as various interest groups stake out turf. The central goal of the program -- to radically refashion education for the district's most disadvantaged students -- could be lost in the skirmishing.

The Public School Choice policy approved by the school board in August was unfortunately vague, a strategy to overcome resistance from various quarters. Now that Supt. Ramon C. Cortines is crafting the detailed implementation of the policy, groups that sought to put their stamp on it are raising objections.

Strange to say, the biggest threat to the initiative comes from charter school operators, which have the most to gain from it. The program will allow outside organizations to bid to run about 50 new schools and 200 chronically underperforming ones over the next several years, and most of those proposals were expected to come from charter groups. But many charter operators are rebelling against a provision in the initiative that requires them to give enrollment preference to students within each school's attendance boundaries.

Charter schools usually admit students through a lottery regardless of where in the district they live, a requirement under state law. There are exceptions, though, the most notable one being Locke High School in Watts, which was taken over by Green Dot Public Schools last year under an agreement that it would educate the students within Locke's boundaries. But the California Charter Schools Assn. finds the district's attendance-boundary requirement untenable, and some charter operators are threatening to abandon the initiative altogether.

That would be a shame, but Cortines should hold firm and should receive the full support of the board on this issue. The attendance boundaries are among the strongest elements of the new policy. Neighborhoods throughout the district, many of them with the most disadvantaged students, have been waiting years for new schools to open and for reform at their existing local schools. The parents will play a role in deciding which organizations should run those schools, and their children should be guaranteed seats in them. Lotteries are a fair method for admitting students to traditional charter schools, but they also favor students whose parents are informed and involved enough to enter the lotteries in the first place -- which also means that these schools attract a motivated population of students and families. Left out are many students, such as foster children, who most need well-run schools.

What the charter operators do need is more flexibility in spending their money. They rightly object to provisions that would require them to use such district services as maintenance and cafeteria workers, even though they could get these services cheaper by hiring their own staffs or contracting outside. The district's service unions and some board members have been adamant about keeping this restriction. If they succeed, it should be with the requirement that the district provides competitive prices. Charters' ability to put more of their money into classrooms is key to their success.

Parent Revolution, a group that advocates an empowered role for parents, also is lobbying for a change of rules. It wants current and future parents at low-performing schools to be able to push their schools to the front of the reform line if more than half sign a petition. Cortines is only willing to designate such schools as "engagement schools," which would begin a long process of deciding whether and when they join the initiative. We have some doubts about the petition effort -- the district should give top priority to the lowest-achieving schools, not to the ones with the most organized parents. But the procedure Cortines has laid out seems more likely to frustrate parents than empower them.

If the Public School Choice initiative does not emerge as a strong reform policy, L.A. Unified will be signaling its ongoing inability to fix itself and its schools -- which could prompt an outside takeover of the district. It is imperative that students' needs not be overshadowed this time by adult priorities.

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