Test scores complicate the debate over expanding L.A. charter schools

As the battle to greatly expand charter schools in Los Angeles begins, both sides are touting statistics they claim make their case.

Charter forces point to test scores showing that their students, on average, do better than those in L.A. Unified.

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FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this article said that charter backers led by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation seek to raise nearly half a million dollars to more than double the number of charters within eight years. The amount sought is nearly half a billion dollars.

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L.A. Unified officials put forward a different set of numbers. They argue that it's more accurate to compare charter schools not with the district as a whole but with magnet schools. In that match, magnets generally do better.

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The data game is an early skirmish with big implications as charter backers, led by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, seek to raise nearly half a billion dollars to more than double the number of charters within eight years. The cornerstone of their campaign is to prove, through statistics, that L.A. Unified is failing students and that parents should have the option of enrolling in charters.

There is general agreement that overall student achievement in LAUSD is disappointing, with dropout rates and test scores worse than state averages. In recent years, the district had made gains compared with the state, but that trend reversed this year under new, more rigorous tests.

"The charter schools send out certain data and LAUSD sends out certain data and you can get lost in the data," said Antonia Hernández, head of the California Community Foundation who works with L.A. Unified and is involved in the charter expansion discussions. "When the adults stop fighting over data, the issue is where will parents be as far as choice and where will students be as far as getting a good education."

Magnet schools, which offer specialized programs, were created to promote integration. They are district-run; teachers and other staff are represented by unions. They enroll 67,700 students.

Charters are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional schools. Most are non-union. They enroll more than 100,000 students.

Charters have proved highly popular with parents, and L.A. has more of them than any other district in the country. The plan by charter proponents, outlined in a strategy report obtained by The Times this week, calls for 260 new charters.

The Broad Foundation said Friday that it "has watched as the number of families seeking to enroll their children in public charter schools has increased dramatically. Many more families are waiting for a spot at these schools. As a funder, our only goal is to help all families who want access to a high-quality public school for their children."

Comparing schools is tricky, educators, researchers and others say.

Parents can choose to send their children to magnets or charters, which could be a meaningful difference compared with traditional schools, said Li Cai, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at UCLA.

"One plausible interpretation — but certainly not the only one — is that schools where the parents are motivated to enroll students do better," Cai said.

Both the most popular charters and the most popular magnets have waiting lists. Neither type of campus has attendance boundaries; students from all parts of the district can enroll, space permitting.

Many parents apply to both magnets and charters before making a choice.

Some studies have concluded that charters serve fewer students with significant learning disabilities as well as fewer students who don't speak English; the same could be true of many magnets.

Both types of schools had higher test scores than traditional campuses on last spring's new state standardized tests.

On the English language arts section, 55% of L.A. Unified magnet students met or exceeded the state's learning standards, compared with 39% of students in local charters and 33% of all L.A. Unified students, according to an analysis conducted by the district.

In math, 44% of magnet students met those targets, compared with 28% of students in charters and 25% of all L.A. Unified students.

The 44-page proposal outlining the charter expansion devotes seven pages to making the case that charters are outperforming L.A. Unified, and therefore deserve to supplant district schools.

Versions of that plan have circulated privately among potential funders since at least June; the Broad Foundation calls it a "preliminary discussion draft." The details became public this week through an article published by The Times.

The district's magnet comparison was an attempt to fight back.

"While overall results indicate that independent charter schools scored higher on these tests than traditional LAUSD schools, it also highlights the stellar performance of our magnet schools, which outperformed charter schools at all grade levels," L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said in a statement.

Cortines, who has supported charter growth in the past, said he wanted charters and the district to work as partners — not enemies.

Charter advocates quickly took issue with the magnet comparison. They noted that some magnets are designated for gifted students, which skewed the results.

The district also conducted an analysis that excluded magnets for gifted students. Without those, magnets still scored higher than charters. In English, 49% met state standards. In math, 36% met those goals.

The charter backers also raised the issue of which schools serve more low-income families. Among students who took the test in charters, 83% were from low-income families; in the district, 79%; and in magnets, 69%.

"It's not wise to compare magnets and independent charter schools, because the district's own data shows that magnet students come from higher-income families," said Jason Mandell, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Assn.

Test scores typically reflect student demographics: The more affluent do better, and whites and Asians, as a group, outscore L.A. Unified's blacks and Latinos, who often come from low-income families.

Both for L.A. Unified and charters, the goal has been to help all students succeed, and some have.

"There are charters that are rocking the world and neighborhood schools that are rocking the world," said Kevin G. Welner, professor of education policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "And there are both on the other end, that are doing very poorly."

The Broad Foundation has given money to the California Community Foundation and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles to support Education Matters, a new Times digital initiative devoted to more in-depth reporting on schools.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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