It's almost always the role of local school districts in California to create new public schools. Even charter schools start by seeking permission from their local school boards to operate. So a bill in Sacramento that would order the state to create a charter-like school specializing in the so-called STEM fields of science, tech, engineering and math can't help raising eyebrows.
It doesn't help that no one is being especially forthcoming about who started the push for this school, which would be located in Los Angeles County, probably in the heart of the city, and operate similarly to a charter school. Two differences are that it would report to the state superintendent of public instruction and would close in five years unless new legislation is passed to keep it alive.
In general, one-shot end runs around the usual system, with separate sets of rules, are a bad idea.
There's only one argument to offset the skepticism that AB 1217 provokes, but it's a compelling one: With support from Caltech, UCLA, philanthropist Eli Broad and others, this promises to be an outstanding school, the kind of well-funded, heavily enriched institution that affluent people would pay big money to send their kids to but that remains beyond the grasp of poor families.
Some great magnet and charter schools operate in the L.A. Unified School District, but not nearly enough to meet the needs of the predominantly low-income student body. AB 1217 would give preference for admission to the new STEM school to low-income students as well as foster kids and those who are not fluent in English — in other words, students with serious educational challenges. Regular charter schools, by contrast, have to offer equal access.
Whether such preferences are a good idea is a complicated question. There would be outrage if a public school were allowed to give special consideration to, say, rich kids. Is an admissions advantage that swings in the other direction acceptable? In our opinion, it is. The reality is that the public education system has long handed the advantage to wealthier people who can afford to live in communities with better-funded schools and who are better equipped to enhance their children's education. Making efforts to level the playing field are welcome.
Bills like this shouldn't become a habit, and there's little doubt that its backers also want to escape the close scrutiny of L.A. Unified. That's not a good thing. But right now, the overriding concern should be providing as many great public schools for low-income kids as we can manage. This bill would get the state one school closer.