School Choice & Charters

Romer Raises Stakes In L.A. Charter Fight

By Caroline Hendrie — May 21, 2003 6 min read
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Alarmed by what he fears will become a flood of high schools seeking to break away from the Los Angeles school district, Superintendent Roy Romer called last week for creating some type of “charter district” within the nation’s second-largest school system.

In a closely watched controversy that has been complicated by racial tensions, Mr. Romer has raised strong objections in recent weeks to plans by three large, relatively high-performing high schools to cut loose from the 750,000- student Los Angeles Unified School District and become autonomous, publicly financed charter schools.

Following the Los Angeles school board’s vote last week to grant independence to two of those schools, Mr. Romer said he wants to find “some way to develop some kind of charter district of our own” as an alternative to the current process to convert existing public schools to charters.

“I take this present method as a very serious threat to the whole district; therefore, I have to seriously think of an alternative,” he said in an interview with Education Week. “What I’m saying is if everybody wants to go this charter route, then let’s network the charters. I’m just really worried about the piecemeal thing.”

Mr. Romer’s comments followed a May 13 meeting at which the district’s seven-member board voted 5-1, with one abstention, to grant a one-year charter to Granada Hills High School in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. With more than 3,800 students, it will become the largest existing school in the nation to convert to charter status, and the nation’s largest single-campus, bricks-and-mortar charter school, experts say.

The school board also agreed to let another relatively high-performing school—the 2,400-student Palisades Charter High School in the Westside section of the city—switch its status from an “affiliated” to an independent charter school, thereby freeing it from district personnel, budgetary, and other policies. The vote was identical to that on Granada Hills High, with the board’s only African-American member voting no and its sole Hispanic member abstaining.

As unhappy as Mr. Romer and other top district officials were to see those schools leave, they hope the conversions will spur the district to address a trend that they see as having major repercussions for the system’s long-term educational and fiscal viability.

“Nobody has worked out what it’s going to look like if you take this district and checkerboard it with 15 to 35 charter high schools,” Mr. Romer said. “I would like to find a way to maintain some coherence about how you operate public schools.”

Break With Past

National interest in the Los Angeles charter landscape has been high in recent years because of the district’s openness to charter schools as a tool for raising student achievement and easing severe overcrowding.

Since California passed its charter law in 1992, the district has granted more than 50 charters.

Many saw this spring’s conversion battle as a turning point.

All four of the existing public schools that previously converted to independent charter status in Los Angeles had been low-performing elementary schools with high poverty rates—a far cry from last week’s breakaway schools.

Granada Hills High attracted attention in part because—with the exception of two magnet schools for gifted students—it had the highest scores of district high schools over the past two years on the state’s Academic Performance Index, or API. “It’s a very symbolic charter,” said Brian Bauer, the 34-year-old principal of Granada Hills High. “There’s a perception that the district is losing its flagship high school.”

In line behind Granada Hills to go charter is another huge, relatively high-performing San Fernando Valley high school run by Mr. Bauer’s father. El Camino Real High, with more than 3,600 students, has been working since March to revise its charter petition to make it acceptable to district administrators, said Ronald S. Bauer, the school’s principal.

Both father and son say a variety of programmatic and fiscal concerns underlie their drives for greater autonomy.

Financially, for example, both believe their schools—which have student-poverty rates too low to qualify for aid through the federal Title I program—stand to gain as independent charters.

“It’s not just about resources; it’s how resources are fused with creativity and innovation,” Brian Bauer said in an interview. Both principals said that autonomy should help them do better with students whose lackluster performance is masked by the schools’ academic high fliers.

“This charter is a golden opportunity to serve the mid-range and lower-achieving groups of youngsters,” Ronald Bauer said.

Busing Is a Concern

Hundreds of the youngsters he refers to are bused to El Camino Real High from other sections of the district, as they are at Granada Hills High, under programs to ease overcrowding and to comply with districtwide desegregation policies.

To address concerns among district administrators about potentially losing those “seats,” the Granada Hills charter guarantees that such transfers would continue at least at present levels.

The busing question is just one of many brought to the fore by this spring’s conversion drives.

Citing a range of concerns, district leaders opposed Granada Hills’ request for a five-year charter and repeatedly sought to delay board action in the weeks leading to last week’s vote.

Those moves were sharply denounced by outgoing school board President Caprice Young, who represents the Granada Hills High neighborhood. The differences resulted in a high-profile political brouhaha.

Race and ethnicity loomed large in the controversy, as Superintendent Romer and other district administrators pointed out that Granada Hills High enrolls a substantially higher percentage of non-Hispanic white students—43 percent—than do most district schools, and suggested that it might start attracting more if it went charter.

Palisades Charter High and El Camino Real also enroll far greater proportions of non-Hispanic white students than the district average of 9 percent.

Another bone of contention has been the annual facilities fees that charter schools will now have to pay to use district-owned campuses. The unresolved issues surrounding those payments and others, which the schools suggest are too high, have led to considerable acrimony in recent weeks.

Mr. Romer, who has backed charter schools since his days as Colorado governor, says the district should address such issues before the trickle of departing schools becomes a torrent.

The superintendent brought up the “charter district” idea at the May 13 school board meeting, focusing on the prospect of forming such a district for high schools. But he told Education Week later that he would be open to other ideas, including an administrative entity including charter schools that serves all grade levels.

Mr. Romer’s proposal comes at a time of uncertainty and transition in Los Angeles’ education politics as a result of recent school board elections. It is unclear how his ideas will be viewed once several new board members take office in July.

It also comes as other urban school systems show greater interest in charter schools as a complement to their own district-run schools. (“Buffalo Board Votes to Explore Network of Charter Schools,” April 16, 2003.)

Bryan C. Hassel, an expert on charter schools who is the president of Public Impact, a research and consulting group based in Chapel Hill, N.C., predicted that the debate in Los Angeles would be watched nationally as more districts seek ways to attract enterprising educators.

But he said it was too soon to assess the value of creating some sort of “charter district” there.

“There’s a danger that it could be just a move to co-opt enterprising people in a way that doesn’t really change anything,” Mr. Hassel said. “That’s why the devil’s in the details.”

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