Friday, April 18, 2008

L.A. teachers union targets pact on charters

By Naush Boghossian, Staff Writer
http://www.dailynews.com/education/ci_8951448

Launching a pitched battle against Los Angeles Unified over plans to dole out more space for the growing charter-school movement, the teachers union said Wednesday that it will aggressively campaign against traditional schools sharing sites with the popular independent schools.

Demonstrations by parents and teachers and community meetings have already begun, just days after the district offered space to more than three dozen charter schools - the most so far - as part of a settlement of a lawsuit challenging the LAUSD's lagging efforts to share its facilities under Proposition 39.
But some schools and teachers said the plans are too disruptive because they include mixing some elementary and secondary students and allocating classrooms that already are in use.

"This has to do with a bad law, and instead of the district fighting this they chose to make a settlement that will impact the educational programs at the host schools by taking away precious space," said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

"And having a high school or middle school on an elementary campus is total madness and a very serious potential security and safety situation for students."

Changing the law

In addition to rallying parents, teachers and community-based organizations, Duffy said, the union will begin talking with legislators about changing the charter law.

And he said he has already received dozens of complaints from parents concerned that the decision will lead to overcrowded classrooms and cuts in key services and programs.

"Anything that impacts the already existing programs at the school is unacceptable because that's not good for our students," Duffy said.

But Caprice Young, head of the state's Charter Schools Association, said the union's campaign is motivated by fear and not concern for students' welfare.

"Duffy is just frightened that the teachers on those campuses are going to realize that they don't have to be confined to the rule-bound system that they're currently working under," Young said.

"When they're teaching side by side next to charter schools, they're going to see that they can be treated like professionals, that they can have control over the curriculum, that they can be engaged with the students in ways they've always desired, and they're going to want that freedom."

For now, the LAUSD finds itself caught in the middle of trying to comply with a legal settlement while also grappling with scarce space.

Greg McNair, the LAUSD associate general counsel who oversees the district's Proposition 39 program, said the district does not believe the law benefits either charter or noncharter students.

But McNair said the offers of space for charter schools will not be revoked unless it is determined that space calculations have been inaccurate.

While he acknowledged that sharing campuses might not be the answer, a dialogue is needed to find a better solution.

"It's a law forcing something to happen that just can't happen at LAUSD, and we feel badly for charter and noncharter parents," he said.

"We'd like to use this as an opportunity to bring everyone to the table to have a dialogue to have a solution to this issue: How do we get seats for charter-school students who need seats?"

Young said part of the problem is the district's unwillingness to open a handful of closed campuses.

While district officials say they've offered to use bond money earmarked for charter schools to bring closed campuses up to code, charter officials said they never received such an offer.

Currently, there is about $60 million in facilities bond money for charter schools. Each school would cost about $15 million to prepare for student occupancy and could accommodate up to three charter schools, McNair said.

While encouraged by the district's efforts to give more space to charters, charter leader Jacqueline Elliot said the discontent on both sides indicates alternatives are needed.

"We don't want the public-school campuses to feel like charters are being forced onto them and we don't want to go into situations where schools don't want us," said Elliot, founder and co-CEO of PUC Schools.

"LAUSD can help charters find better facilities and give fiscal support. It doesn't have to be this."

A parent's concern

Jennifer deSpain, parent of a Taft High student, said the offer of space at Taft to charter schools will compromise services.

The district has offered CHAMPS charter 15 classrooms at Taft.

And deSpain said she also is concerned about security as well as the loss of students - and state money - by eliminating an open-enrollment option that allowed Taft to offer leftover seats to students districtwide.

"This school has worked so hard in improving test scores ... so another school can come in and use our facilities? It isn't fair," she said.

"Why should our students and our school lose this space? It's a detriment to the success of Taft to provide space to a charter school."

Still, some charters that have long struggled under difficult circumstances are looking forward to finally having a school to call their own.

The 140-student Synergy Charter Academy of South Los Angeles has been operating out of a church facility for four years.

While the learning environment has been less than ideal, in a community where nearby schools are underperforming, Synergy students have gotten high scores on statewide standardized tests.

The district now has offered the charter six classrooms at nearby Hobart Boulevard Elementary - space it will use to start up a middle school, said Meg Palisoc, co-founder and co-director of the school.

"We're a nomadic school ... and we are grateful and excited to be able to get some space," Palisoc said. "What will be helpful is if we don't have to pack up all the time.

"We really believe that the achievement gap is too big a problem for any one group to solve and we really want to work together - and we're going in hoping LAUSD will have the same attitude."

For the latest school news, go to www.insidesocal.com/education.
naush.boghossian@dailynews.com

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