Monday, January 11, 2010

NEW RULES ON TAP FOR CHARTER SCHOOLS: Critics say tougher standards could lead to more bureaucracy.

By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Newspaper Group/Daily News

1/11/10 -- With charter school enrollment at an all-time high locally, Los Angeles Unified officials are expected to set tougher standards this week for the publicly funded and independently run campuses.

Agenda for Tuesday Jan 12 1PM  Bd of Ed Meeting

The new rules come as the district is expected to add even more charters under a reform plan that allows outside operators to run new and failing campuses.

But charter school advocates and other critics say the district's new rules will drown the innovative schools in paperwork, defeating the purpose of having campuses that are supposed to operate outside of normal red tape restrictions.

District officials who see the growth of charter schools as healthy argue that nonetheless much of the accountability and oversight has been lax and inconsistent.

They say the changes are necessary to ensure that students in both charters and district-operated campuses receive the same quality of education.

"People want charter schools to be treated separate and then the same, depending on what works to their advantage ...," said LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines. "I'm trying to create a level playing field for all the children in Los Angeles."

Los Angeles Unified used to oppose the launching of new charters, but has gradually embraced the reform model in recent years under pressure from parents and politicians.

Over the past decade the number of charter schools approved within LAUSD has more than tripled, reaching 158 charter campuses this year serving nearly 58,000 students - or about 8 percent of all students in the LAUSD attendance area.

Late last year, the LAUSD board approved a sweeping reform plan that allows charters and other outside operators to take over district schools beginning this fall.

The policy to be considered this week will streamline the process for charter school approvals and enforce more oversight on the campuses, including more frequent visits by district officials.

Cortines said the intention is to make the process consistent so there is little room for debate when a school is being considered for approval or closure.

The plan also strengthens building safety standards on the maintenance and operation of charters to match those met by district-operated schools.

It will also require members of charter school boards to fill out conflict-of-interest forms, similar to those filed now by elected school board members.

Folded into the new policy is also a major push to have charter schools meet all the requirements placed on district-operated schools for special education.

District officials want to see an increase in the enrollment of students with disabilities at charter schools, along with more funding for their programs.

Charter school advocates say that while they appreciate LAUSD embracing the growth of charters, this plan will inundate the schools with paperwork and bureaucracy at a time when the reform model is being praised for innovation.

Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association, said while he welcomes higher standards, he disapproves of restrictions that attempt to make the independent schools more like district-run campuses.

"We want to play on the field that is healthiest for kids," Wallace said.

"For the district to impose the same restrictions on charters as they have is ridiculous. ... That's why the movement started, because we wanted freedom from those restrictions."

Wallace said the push back comes at a time when charter school operators feel a real sense of change at LAUSD. Specifically, Wallace praised the district for moving forward with its School Choice plan, allowing charter operators, nonprofits and teacher collectives to apply to run district schools.

"There is a larger trend toward greater receptiveness to charters and that should be acknowledged and seen by all as an encouraging sign," Wallace said.

"Yet within this charter policy there is clearly still a tendency ... towards excessive regulation, and the reason charters have been so successful is because of the flexibility and autonomy they have."

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, argued that the increased access to district facilities that charters now have means restrictions need to be imposed.

"Anybody who uses public monies should have public oversight," Duffy said.

LAUSD board member Marguerite LaMotte, who is introducing a motion to tighten special education requirements on charter schools, said that not implementing restrictions could create a two-tiered school system.

"Since we are no longer defending one public school system but we've become a system of different kinds of public schools, there needs to be equity and access," LaMotte said.

Even supporters of charters and school choice agree that some regulations have to be placed on the schools, largely because the district failed to do so years ago when the charter movement began.

"Since I have been here I have seen about six different directors for the charter school office," said LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia.

"With every new cohort of staff we got different processes and rules ... this effort is about getting that process done."

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