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Opinion

Editorial: Better L.A. Unified schools would be best weapon against charter push

Start of the school year

Students line up at a district bus stop next to Jefferson High School in Los Angeles on Aug. 18, LAUSD’s first day of classes. The buses transport the students to middle schools and other high schools in the area.

(Los Angeles Times)

The gloves are off between charter school supporters and the Los Angeles Unified school board. And so far, their clash shows all the calm maturity of a playground shouting match.

Charter schools in L.A. got higher scores on a recent round of standardized tests than traditional district schools, the state’s charter school association pointed out. Oh, yeah? L.A. Unified replied. Our magnet schools outscored your charter schools.

But you included the magnet schools for gifted children, the charters retorted. Uh-huh, said the district, but even taking out those programs, the magnets beat you.

Neener-neener.

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This tacky exercise in one-upmanship follows the recent disclosure of a dramatic, $480-million expansion plan to double the number of district students attending charters. It’s not surprising that such an in-your-face move by charter school supporters — who want half of all L.A. students to be in charters in eight years — has set off a wave of anxiety among the district’s teachers and officials. They have legitimate reason to worry: Charters draw more-motivated and higher-achieving students, so they often leave traditional schools worse off, with less money to serve more students with behavioral problems and disabilities.

Hence the aggressive response. Board member Scott Schmerelson recently characterized the planned charter expansion as “an insult” to teachers and “an attack on democratic, transparent and inclusive public school governance....” His colleague Steve Zimmer called it a “hostile takeover.”

But if the district really wants to fend off a charter incursion, its best bet is not to ramp up the angry rhetoric but to create and build the kinds of public schools that attract and keep students. Parents whose children are happily enrolled in orderly, well-run neighborhood schools, or exciting magnet schools, have little reason to switch.

The expansion plan is not an insult to anyone. It’s a boon for kids and their parents, who will have new and, we hope, better choices. The district has its own stable of outstanding magnet schools — and some regular public schools that are showing signs of major improvement — and charter supporters should not be trying to diminish their reputations. As with charter schools, there are waiting lists for district magnets. So why isn’t the district, which still has too many underperforming schools, rapidly expanding its popular magnet program?

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To his credit, Zimmer tried to do exactly that with an expanded Mandarin-language program in Mar Vista, but NIMBY forces shut down his plan.

Earlier this year, when he was running for school board, Schmerelson had this to say: “Charter schools are here to stay. Let’s not fight them, let’s embrace them…. My goal is to build up our traditional public schools to the point that parents and students would have a difficult time in deciding between a charter and a traditional public school.”

That’s a smarter philosophy than his recent slam.

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