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Is the Charter School War Necessary?

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(This column was first published in the Los Angeles Daily News.)

By Robin Lake and Paul Hill

The recently reported plan to serve half of all L.A.'s students in charter schools can benefit 100% of the city's children.  But not if the adult groups involved—both the charter sponsors and the Los Angeles Unified School District board and administration—blow the opportunity by operating as adversaries. 

The charter and district sectors can't be as separate as either side thinks.  Rather than being insulated from the challenges now affecting LAUSD, charter funders and school operators will be forced to provide special education, serve the most disadvantaged, and make sure there is a school for every child in the city.

On the other side, LAUSD will find it impossible to provide good schools for the half of all L.A.'s children who remain in its care unless it collaborates with and imitates the charter sector.

Charters Can No Longer 'Fly Under the Radar'

When charter schools come to serve significant numbers of students, they can no longer fly under the radar on issues like fair admissions and expulsions, special education, and student discipline.  Parents and civil rights attorneys bring cases, often with the law firmly on their side.  Charter schools then need to reach out to excluded families and develop policies, and find ways to admit and serve students with disabilities whom they once just sent back to the school district.

Individual charter schools can't handle all this on their own: they need to work with other schools on admissions lotteries, student discipline and transfer, and transportation.  In New Orleans, in response to a civil rights lawsuit, charter schools are also pooling funds and creating shared special education services.

Thus, as the charter market share expands, the charter sector is forced to take on an increasing share of the "overheads" of public education that a few isolated charter schools could escape.

LAUSD Will Have to Rethink Operations

At the same time, charter sector growth means that LAUSD will have to choose between re-thinking the ways it does business or facing a downward spiral in its ability to serve any students well.   Growing charter enrollment means fewer dollars for the district; if it doesn't cut its fixed costs (for example, the number of people employed in the central office, buildings maintained, number of teachers employed outside of classrooms) the district will be forced to starve its schools.  Schools forced to get by with fewer teachers (and thus larger class sizes) and fewer on-site resources will be less and less able to compete with charter schools.  Alert parents will see the difference, and soon only unlucky or unwary families will keep their children in district schools.

This can happen even if charter schools are practicing fair admissions and serving their full share of the most challenging students.   Though district leaders might be tempted to blame the result on charter schools, the solution is in their hands.   To compete effectively and serve their students well, LAUSD will have to reduce fixed costs, move a greater share of all resources to the schools, and aggressively re-think what kids need and what works.

Put More LAUSD Dollars in Schools

If LAUSD doesn't want its schools to become only places of last resort, it must put a greater share of the available money directly into the schools and work constantly to improve what's offered students: developing new schools to meet emerging needs, expanding or imitating the best existing schools, and closing or re-developing schools that parents and teachers try to avoid.

This, of course, is essentially what the charter sector is about: concentration of resources at the school, funding based on enrollment, and creating new high quality schools as they are needed.

If the new plan works, LAUSD and the charters will become more alike and share many challenges.  Knowing that, charter and public sector leaders can make one another's work much easier by collaborating from the beginning to find common solutions.  In a city where everyone agrees that all children should have access to good schools, it should also be possible to agree on a common set of school performance measures, a high functioning common enrollment system to help families choose among their diverse options, and criteria for deciding when a neighborhood or group of kids needs a better set of schooling options.

Doing these things would re-define public education in Los Angeles as a collaborative enterprise in which a diverse set of school operators work together to maximize kids' opportunities.  That's where the new plan could lead if the city's leaders, both private and governmental, would approach it as a way to benefit all the city's children, not just the half that will attend schools bearing one label or another.

Robin Lake is director and Paul Hill the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

 

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