Smarter charter starters

Today, Coombs, Shaffer and Snell focus on the Locke High School cock-up. Previously, they debated teacher tenure, the school board election and the merits of mayoral takeover. Tomorrow they will discuss possible education reforms.

Competition is already showing resultsBy Lisa Snell
Charter schools are a viable alternative for parents who demand higher quality education for their children. They provide the first real competition for entrenched school districts that have little incentive to change in ways that matter to students and parents. Locke high school is the case in point and demonstrates that students, parents, and teachers are desperate for better schooling options.

In 2005, I wrote about life at Locke high school for a Reason magazine column:

On March 17, 2005, 15-year-old Delusa Allen was shot in the head while leaving Locke High School in Los Angeles, sending her into intensive care and eventually killing her. Four months before that several kids were injured in a riot at the same school, and last year the district had to settle a lawsuit by a student who required eye surgery after he was beaten there. In 2000, 17-year-old Deangelo Anderson was shot just across the street from Locke; he lay dead on the sidewalk for hours before the coroner came to collect his body. Violent crime is common at Locke. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, in the 2003-04 school year its students suffered three sex offenses, 17 robberies, 25 batteries, and 11 assaults with a deadly weapon. And that's actually an improvement over some past years: In 2000-01 the school had 13 sex offenses, 43 robberies, 57 batteries, and 19 assaults with a deadly weapon.
While there are no current statistics about school violence at Locke, the academic performance of students continues to be bleak. In 2006 African American students at Locke scored 470 on the Academic Performance Index and students overall scored 504—800 is the statewide standard.

By contrast similar students at Green Dot charters score more than 200 points higher. African American students at Green Dot's Animo Inglewood high school scored 220 points higher than Locke students. Eighty percent of Green Dot students graduate compared with fewer than 50 percent of Lock students. Green Dot replicates these higher API scores and graduation rates across multiple campuses.

In addition Green Dot offers teachers better working conditions, with real control over what happens in the classroom, for higher compensation.

And while Green Dot may be getting all the attention, it is not alone. There are many charter schools in Los Angeles and the nation that put all of their resources into student learning. It is the number one priority. In Los Angeles, College Ready Academy is another clear example. At this high school 93 percent of students qualify for free lunch. In one year it went from 696 on the API to 766. It ranks 8 out of 10 overall in the state rankings and has a 10 on the similar schools ranking. It has an average class size of 24 when the state class size average for high school is 30.

With these safer, smaller, higher-performing schools being replicated throughout Los Angeles, the real question is why isn't every teacher and parent bailing out of LAUSD?

If national charter school trends for low-performing districts are any indication, they may start doing that, and soon. My easy prediction is that charter schools will keep growing and more children will continue to enroll in Los Angeles charters.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools more than 19 cities educate more than 13 percent of their students in charter schools. For example in Detroit, the number of children enrolled in public charter schools in fall 2006 was 42,378, or 25.3 percent of the 167,490 district students. As a result of competition from charters the district is considering a proposal to close 52 schools in response to declining enrollment. Similarly, in Washington, D.C., charter school enrollment has increased by 2,260 in 2006. Charter schools now serve 19,733 students or 26 percent of the city's children. At the same time, enrollment in the D.C. public school system has declined by 2,670 students from the previous school year.

Los Angeles will be another city where charter school market share continues to grow and both teachers and students continue to choose the safer and more responsive alternative. The bottom line in Los Angeles is that the standards for charter schools and their performance is continuing to improve while district-run schools are stagnant or declining. Competition among charter schools will result in higher-performing school models vying to attract students who have been ill-served by their current school. This competition has already accelerated the pace of school reform in Los Angeles and increased both the interest and investment in education reform. While charter schools may not directly serve every student in our beleaguered district, they are a true change agent that should bring positive reforms to all schools in the district.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.

A darker imageBy Walter P. Coombs and Ralph E. Shaffer
If the picture you draw of charter schools were valid, Lisa, there would be no objection to their spread throughout LAUSD or every district in the state. Unfortunately, charters have a darker image, one you don't read about in either of the city's dailies. Both the Times and the Daily News have accepted without question the claims of those who arrogantly push for charter expansion.

Let's start with test scores. Charters do it with mirrors. They compare the API scores of kids in their charter with the neighborhood public school; and indeed, the charter wins.

But wait! What they don't tell you is how these kids scored when they were in conventional public schools. Weren't they already scoring head and shoulders above the average student at Locke, or Crenshaw, or wherever? Remove them from their neighborhood school and test scores at Crenshaw are bound to fall when the only ones tested are the children "left behind."

And why is it that so many charters have so few English-learner students and special-ed enrollees? That, too, skews test scores upward at charters in contrast to their neighborhood counterparts which have an abundance of non-English speaking kids and students with special needs.

Do the charters even include their special-ed students in API testing? They don't have to if the number is small, which it often is, while the number of special-ed kids is so large at conventional schools that the schools are required to test them and include their scores in the overall mix.

Technically charters are supposed to reflect the demographic makeup of their surrounding community. Why, then, do random samples of the ethnic background of charter students find such a great discrepancy between the population of the real world out there and the student population in the charters?

Salaries? Green Dot's salary schedule may look great to a prospective teacher, but will very many teachers ever reach the upper end of the scale? Not if business ethics are applied to the running of these semi-private schools, for the tendency will be to dismiss mature and experienced teachers, replacing them with new fodder just out of college and in the bottom salary levels. That, of course, is what comes from the "innovation" that gives principals power to hire and fire without the guaranteed protections negotiated by a union or state legislature.

Ah yes, "innovation!" What precisely are the innovations allowable in charters that couldn't take place in a regular public school? Why couldn't they be found in a conventional classroom? Would you want them there? The charter folks need to answer that one.

And, good grief, Lisa, look at the bureaucracy in charters and the unbelievably large administrative salaries. Green Dot has become a little LAUSD, with a bloated organization that's expanding the number of schools it controls at unbelievable speed. And the arrogance of Green Dot leader Steve Barr exceeds that of any LAUSD bureaucrat, made worse by the "freedom" from those state regulations that charters enjoy.

And as to Locke High and the move to create a Green Dot charter there, did a majority of the Locke teachers really petition to convert to a charter? If so, many of them are in for a real shock. Their just-demoted principal, who's apparently at the head of the line to preside over Green Dot Locke, apparently doesn't think well of those teachers who signed his petition, for this is the way he describes the continued failure of his school: "It is criminal to allow a school to continue on year after year, the way this one has," said Frank Wells, head of Locke High School... "Send me quality teachers."

Fifteen years ago two state legislators, Delaine Eastin and Gary Hart, pushed through Sacramento the law that permitted formation of charter schools. We asked them to tell us if the present chaotic state of charters is what they envisioned. Their silence is indeed deafening.

Walter P. Coombs is professor emeritus of social sciences at Cal Poly Pomona, and Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.

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