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A weaker Public School Choice initiative

The Public School Choice initiative was a landmark reform for the Los Angeles Unified School District. By allowing alternative operators — whether charter school organizations, the mayor or groups of teachers — to apply to manage scores of new and low-performing schools, it set the standard for putting students first. The theory was that anyone could apply and the very best applications would win, ensuring that students attended the best-run schools the district could offer. Just as important, charter operators in the program would have to accept all students within each school’s enrollment area rather than using the usual lottery system under which more-motivated families tend to apply to charter schools.

Of course, this is L.A. Unified, which means things didn’t always work out. More than one management contract was awarded on the basis of political alliances. Charter schools were disappointingly unwilling to take on the tougher challenge of turning around failing schools; most of their applications were for the new, pretty campuses.

For all that, Public School Choice still promised to give educational excellence the highest priority. Until this week, that is, when the school board scaled back on that promise in a big way by deciding that charter organizations will be kept out of the first round of applications for new schools. Only if the applications by inside groups — mostly teacher teams — are less than “sufficiently excellent” will charters be allowed to apply.

Board member Steve Zimmer justifiably frets about the charter groups’ lack of interest in older schools. Teachers have worked in overcrowded, dilapidated schools for years, only to see the long-promised new schools go to outside operators. But the key point of Public School Choice was to seek out the best education for students — not “sufficiently excellent” but the best. Reform-minded members of the board went along with the new policy when it was made contingent on concessions from unions for those teacher-run schools. Those concessions, including more robust evaluations, are worthwhile, but the district shouldn’t have traded quality in return for them.

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The board should instead have decreed that when competing applications are of equal quality, the advantage must be given to internal groups. That would have given all applicants an incentive to deliver outstanding proposals without depriving students of what could have been a knockout application from an outside organization.


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