Saturday, September 12, 2009

BOTH SIDES OBJECT TO LAUSD 'CHARTER' PLAN: Teachers union says there are legal problems while those looking to take over campuses cite boundary rules

By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News

09/12/2009 -- Los Angeles Unified officials have released the first draft of a controversial reform plan that outlines how nonprofit groups might ultimately operate up to 250 district campuses, but some groups Friday criticized the proposal as anti-parent choice and anti-teacher.

Under the district's recently approved School Choice Plan, charter schools, the Mayor's Schools Partnership program, the teachers union and other nonprofits can apply to run up to 250 new and underperforming district campuses.

In announcing the first draft of the plan, Superintendent Ramon Cortines said he welcomed vigorous debate and looked forward to hearing from all sides.

"This is a road map to get people's ideas," Cortines said. "The fact that both (charters and union members) are uneasy over the plan lets me know the process is balanced."

Among Cortines' recommendations:

  • LAUSD would start receiving applications to run the new and underperforming schools by October and expects to have all final decisions made by January.
  • Applicants must be nonprofit, public organizations that can prove they have the financial capacity and skills to run a successful school.
  • School operators must enroll all the children who fall within the attendance boundary of each new or underperforming district school that is up for grabs.

    While the powerful teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and charter school leaders criticized parts of Cortines' plan, they pledged to help the district work out the kinks.

    Among its chief concerns, UTLA said the draft proposal was illegal because it did not guarantee certain teacher hiring provisions. UTLA leaders also said the plan moves too quickly to hand over schools and fails to provide adequate time for the union to put together bids for the schools.

    "This is clearly anti-teacher and anti-community," UTLA President A.J. Duffy said.

    "To have a (proposal to operate a school) done by the end of November in 60 days, that truly engages stakeholders and creates a bottom-up plan, is not possible so we are going to get a lot of one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter plans from charter schools and from the mayor's partnership."

    Out of bounds

    While charter school leaders are generally happy with the plan's overall mission of placing low-performing schools under better management, they objected to Cortines' attendance boundary requirement.

    They say it would force them to break a tenet of the independent public school movement: Giving parents the right to choose a charter school outside their neighborhood if they are not satisfied with their local school.

    "The issue of parental choice is at the heart of the charter movement," said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association.

    Charter schools are publicly funded, but they do not have to adhere to state or district restrictions. They also use a lottery to enroll children and do not restrict admission to those children within a geographic boundary.

    Wallace said that admitting students on a lottery basis is a requirement for federal grant funding available to the alternative schools. Some of the grants issued for start-up cash can be for as much as $700,000.

    Cortines expects to present a final draft of the plan to the board sometime in October.

    "None of these schools are for sale," Cortines added.

    "This provides us with an opportunity to have the best education plan possible be implemented on behalf of the children of this district."

    Legal concerns

    Last week, UTLA sent a letter to the district listing several legal concerns with the current plan.

    In the letter, UTLA attorneys argue the plan is illegal because it doesn't hire the teachers that were guaranteed jobs at year-round campuses that will be relieved by the new campuses. If charters operate the new schools, they are not required by law to hire union teachers.

    The letter also says that if existing campuses are going to be converted to charters, they must comply with existing charter law that requires a majority of teachers at the campus support the conversion.

    Duffy said UTLA wants more time to bid for the schools. Currently, UTLA plans to submit proposals for schools using the pilot school model - that allows administrators to enforce more flexible schedules with their employees and only hire teachers who believe in the school mission.

    Over the next month, Cortines will take suggestions. He also said not all 250 new and underperforming schools would be eligible to be bid for over the next few months. For example, only the 29 new schools that will be completed by the fall of 2010 will be open to the bidding process. Based on the most recent state standardized test scores, Cortines will create a list of the underperforming schools that would be eligible for takeover.

    "It will not be 250," Cortines said.

    "This is not about politics or about who knows who or preferential treatment or who can yell the loudest."

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