Making room for charter students
When voters passed Proposition 39 in 2000, they surely had no idea of the headaches it would cause Los Angeles schools. Most Californians probably never even noticed the wording about providing space for charter schools, and if they did, they had little idea of what a charter school was. The chief purpose of the measure was to allow school bonds to pass with 55% of the vote rather than the two-thirds supermajority required up to that point. Schools were falling apart and classrooms were so tightly packed that many campuses operated on year-round, multitrack schedules. By making it easier to pass school bonds, Proposition 39 literally changed the school landscape.
But what Proposition 39 gives, it occasionally takes away. Now that the Los Angeles Unified School District has a little room to spare, charter schools — publicly funded, privately operated schools that are free from most district rules and state regulations — have been invoking the provision in the proposition that requires space for charter students that is “reasonably equivalent” to that in the district schools they would have attended. This usually means sharing a campus with a traditional public school. In most cases, the two must coordinate the use of playing fields, gyms, the cafeteria and other common areas.
But the effects go beyond figuring out how to divide up library hours. The California Charter Schools Assn. has been in a legal battle to gain more from L.A. Unified. Under the formula that it says should be used to allocate space for charters — a formula backed by state regulations implementing Proposition 39 — each charter school student would be allotted more space than a district student on the host campus. That’s because charter schools, which are often subsidized through foundation grants, tend to have much smaller class sizes. The charter schools contend that they should be given a room for each class, even if that class has 15 students while a classroom of the same size at the traditional public school might have 30. They also claim that preschool classrooms and parent centers should be counted in the formula under which charter space is allocated.
This shouldn’t be considered “reasonably equivalent.” Nor is it a given that, when a host school’s enrollment grows, it can reclaim some of the charter classrooms. Now that L.A. Unified will be getting significant new money from the state, it can afford to reduce at least some class sizes as well as expand art and science programs. Those will need space, and first priority should go to the traditional public schools.
That’s not to minimize the contribution made by charter schools. Many have provided a superior education to students who otherwise would have been forced to attend lackluster or even terrible schools. When independent researchers examine whether students fare better in charter schools than they would have in the public schools, the answer for Los Angeles students is yes, they generally do. When there is extra space on a campus, it is unfair and wasteful — not to mention illegal — to withhold it from a charter school.
And L.A. Unified must take some responsibility for its current situation. It should have dedicated a far bigger proportion of its $7-billion school construction bond in 2008 to charter schools, providing them with grants to buy or rent their own campuses. But it didn’t, so schools will continue to share. The question is whether the district must be held to the untenable standards laid out by the state’s regulations. It won the latest round in court, but the charter schools association appealed to the state Supreme Court. In addition, L.A. Unified school board member Steve Zimmer plans to propose next month that the district seek legislative changes in the regulations. We support the district’s position in court as well as Zimmer’s attempt to gain some relief for its schools.
The advantages that charter schools offer deservedly make them an attractive option, but providing for charter students should not come at the expense of students in traditional public schools.
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