Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Los Angeles Board votes for Charter Schools

Vote could open 250 L.A. schools to outside operators
Backers of the Board of Education decision tout choice and competition. Foes call the move illegal, illogical and improper.

L.A. Unified School District to vote on school choice

District to relinquish control of some schools
In a startling acknowledgment that the Los Angeles school system cannot improve enough schools on its own, the city Board of Education approved a plan Tuesday that could turn over 250 campuses -- including 50 new multimillion-dollar facilities -- to charter groups and other outside operators.

The plan, approved on a 6-1 vote, gives Supt. Ramon C. Cortines the power to recommend the best option to run some of the worst-performing schools in the city as well as the newest campuses. Board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte dissented.

The vote occurred after a tense, nearly four-hour debate during which supporters characterized the resolution as a moral imperative. Foes called it illegal, illogical and improper.

The action signals a historic turning point for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has struggled for decades to boost student achievement. District officials and others have said their ability to achieve more than incremental progress is hindered by the powerful teachers union, whose contract makes it nearly impossible to fire ineffective tenured teachers. Union leaders blame a district bureaucracy that they say fails to include teachers in "top-down reforms."

"The premise of the resolution is first and foremost to create choice and competition," said board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who brought the resolution, "and to really force and pressure the district to put forth a better educational plan."

She and other backers said they expected the district to improve its own performance and to also compete to turn around schools. Bidders could apply to manage schools by mid-January.

For the charter school operators, the biggest prize is 50 new schools scheduled to open over the next four years.

"It's absolutely indispensable, of critical importance to us," said Jed Wallace, chief executive of the California Charter Schools Assn. "It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity: 50 new school buildings coming online at the exact same time that a cadre of charter operators has demonstrated that it can generate unprecedented levels of student learning."

Charters are publicly funded but independently operated and free from some regulations governing the traditional administration of schools. They also are not required to be unionized.

Some of them have failed to outperform regular schools, according to some recent research. But backers of the new plan say that only the top-notch charter companies have a realistic shot at operating any of the 250 campuses that could be included, about a fourth of all district schools.

Finding locations for schools has been a paramount problem for charter groups. Synergy Academy in South Los Angeles, for example, occupies rented space in a church 500 feet from where a new L.A. Unified school is being built.

Among those who could take advantage of the board action is Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who could use it to enlarge the 11-school effort run by a nonprofit that he controls. Villaraigosa, who helped elect a majority of the seven-member board, was an active participant Tuesday, speaking before more than 2,000 parents, teachers and others before the vote.

For several board members, particularly those with strong union ties, the debate was heated and often agonizing. Steve Zimmer, for one, sought to require that teachers, other union members and parents approve any school's reform plan through separate majority votes. At high schools students would also vote.

Leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles were once again frustrated that their own version of reform -- democratically run school sites with substantial and mandatory teacher input -- played second fiddle. Union President A.J. Duffy threatened legal action to thwart the Flores Aguilar plan.

Duffy chastised board members, especially those most closely allied with the mayor.

"When all is said and done you will have sold this district down the road for political gain for some of you," he said at the meeting, "and for a mayor whose own program has been a dismal failure. And if you end up . . . giving the mayor more schools, then shame on you."

Other critics have joined Duffy in questioning whether schools built with bond funds to relieve crowding, can be turned over to entities not under direct district control.

For their part, charter schools may have to operate differently in district-owned sites. They could be required to enroll more disabled students and higher numbers of lower-income students than at some current charter schools.

Both sides gathered coalitions of supporters. The charter-backed group Families That Can organized a massive rally outside district headquarters before the vote.

And the critics were not exclusively union members. Some called the plan an abdication of district responsibility or a failure to acknowledge district progress.

David Crippens, who chairs the committee overseeing school-construction spending, cautioned against "change for the sake of change."

But school board President Monica Garcia, a Villaraigosa ally, asserted that "kids can't wait. . . . My support for this resolution is in the hope that the district can move faster."

Shortly after the vote, Villaraigosa savored a political and policy victory at district headquarters in downtown L.A.

"We're not going to be held hostage by a small group of people," Villaraigosa said, referring to the teachers union and other opponents. "I'll let you infer who I'm talking about."

howard.blume@latimes.com
From the Los Angeles Times. Click on the title to read the entire article.

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-lausd-schools26-2009aug26,0,4203620.story
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