Sunday, September 20, 2009


Op-Ed in the LA Daily News by Doug Lasken

09/20/2009 10:09:06 AM PDT

WITH its recent vote to allow outside operators, including charters, to run new and underperforming schools, the L.A. Unified school board has in effect put itself on record as saying that the district it regulates cannot guarantee a quality education.

Considering the source, the public has little choice but to accept this judgment. But, we should not jump from the frying pan into the fire.

Charters are not in themselves either better or worse than public schools. They are what the operators, staff, parents and students make them. So it would seem to behoove those in Los Angeles with a stake in education to make sure that the charters are better than the public school they are replacing.

The timeline is short. As the Daily News reported last week, schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines wants proposals from aspiring operators submitted by the end of November and "expects to have all final decisions made by January." This leaves a little more two months to write proposals and another two months to determine their acceptability. The real concern is not the short timeline, but the lack of specific criteria with which the plan will be evaluated.

Two elements in particular should be included in the evaluations of proposals to operate schools - one which should have been a prime focus of discussion in the past, but was not. The element missing in past discussions was a focus on the exemptions that charter schools have from many state and district regulations that LAUSD schools must follow.

This can be good or bad, depending on the specifics. For example, the state education code prohibits using attendance as a criterion for grades. A student can be tardy to class every day, but it won't affect academic marks. Charter schools are free of this rule and can require prompt attendance for passage of a class, as Granada Hills Charter High School has done. This is a long overdue correction of an archaic and counterproductive section of the state code.

However, charters also have the freedom to ignore arguable improvements in state law. An example is Proposition 227, passed in 1997, which mandates that students whose native language is not English must begin a study of English immediately.

Before Prop. 227, students in California public schools whose native language was Spanish were required to study Spanish exclusively until they achieved a high proficiency in Spanish. In LAUSD, all subjects were taught in Spanish well into middle-school and beyond. The result was thousands of native Spanish-speaking students entered middle and high school without ever having studied English. Not surprisingly, the passage of Prop. 227 resulted in a dramatic increase in test scores.

Charters are not required to follow Prop. 227. In fact Green Dot Charter Schools, the main charter provider in LAUSD's area and a prime competitor for the new sites, ignores Prop. 227.

At Green Dot's Animo Charter High School in downtown L.A. students may write their essays in Spanish, then hand them over to teachers to translate into English. Such a practice would be illegal in LAUSD.

Shouldn't the criteria for selecting outside operators include a discussion of which state and district rules will be forgone and which maintained, and the reasons why?

The other consideration arises from Cortines' decision that charters must admit all the students in the original school's attendance area.

Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association, complained to the Daily News that admitting neighborhood kids violates the tenet that "...parental choice is at the heart of the charter movement."

Wallace conveniently ignores the choice of the parents in the attendance area, as he ignores the question of where the neighborhood kids will go if their neighborhood school is closed. The schools open to charter takeover are the "Program Improvement" schools, where the neighborhood children are at risk. A lottery offers admission to students from outside the school's area, so students from highly motivated families bypasses the very students who need an improved school the most. A lottery system would thus defeat the point of the program.

Cortines should stick to his guns on the neighborhood attendance requirement. Let's hope that the two-month period to assess and choose outside operators will involve public discussion of specific approaches to state regulations.


Doug Lasken is a retired LAUSD teacher and freelance writer. Write to him at

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