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February 01, 2012
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Los Angeles was the first American city to claim 100 charter schools, a milestone it reached in 2006. The California Charter Schools Association embraced the moment by telling reporters that “Los Angeles Unified has quickly become the nationwide leader in promoting innovative public school options, like charter schools, to tackle the challenges of low student achievement and overcrowding.”
In the years since, the district has grown more antagonistic towards a burgeoning charter sector that presently serves about 15 percent of the city’s public school students. And the state charter association has become increasingly frustrated. Now that a board member has proposed a moratorium on new charters, the association has responded by calling the move “blatantly illegal.”
It’s right. The Los Angeles school board can’t simply set aside its legal obligation to consider a charter application. But school board member Steve Zimmer has proposed doing exactly that, supposedly to better examine how charters are complying with state law and district policies. Specifically, Zimmer wants the district to create an oversight panel to more aggressively monitor charters; board members collectively have sought additional student data from charters and they’re concerned about the low number of special-needs children enrolled in the schools. The moratorium would give such a commission time to craft new policies, Zimmer said.
But if Zimmer and the school board are serious about quality control, they’re only doing half their job as a charter-school authorizer. The board should be weeding out bad existing charters, but that’s not always easy to do (just ask the California Charter Schools Association, which last year succeeded in convincing authorizers to shut down just a few of the ten poorly performing charters throughout the state it recommended for closure). Zimmer and his colleagues would be more effective—and more convincing when they say that they care about current and prospective charter students—if they make the effort to find new and promising providers to replace the failures.
But as with many moves like this, school-board members here seem to be intent on slowing demand for charters by artificially capping enrollment (the wait list for L.A. charters presently is 10,000). Some members of the Los Angeles board previously tried to impose a moratorium six years ago, but they were unsuccessful. The board also has worked to keep charters from using existing public school facilities, but a judge this summer said the district must share space equally among all public school students, including those in charters.
These are not good developments for a school system with a great density of charters, a demand for more, and where the charter-schools association wants to be a partner in quality control. Indeed, the association said in a September 7 letter to the district that it wants to continue to work with LAUSD to establish a comprehensive charter school data reporting system by 2013. Further, the association argued that a new oversight panel would be wasteful. “We remind you that the Board eliminated a charter subcommittee approximately four years ago because of superfluous costs and inefficiencies,” the letter states.
The school board is set to discuss Zimmer’s resolution next month, and at least one board member has said publicly that the plan is worth considering. Let’s hope it stops there.