Thursday, September 03, 2009

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines Defends the District's Action to Pave the Way for Charters and Non-Profits; All Students, He Says, Including Those With Special Needs Will Receive an Education Under This Plan

By Diana L. Chapman

I’d like to say I found comfort in the words of Los Angeles Schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines, but I’m still finding this issue of putting a third of the district’s campuses up for grabs to non-profits and charters difficult to embrace.

That being said, and knowing perhaps it’s time to move on, I asked the superintendent of the nation’s second largest school district, to respond to the worries over a controversial Los Angeles Unified School district decision approved this month.

The action – agreed to on a 6-1 school board vote -- allows non-profit organizations and charter schools to go after 50 new campuses that will be constructed by 2012 – and for the same entities to consider the takeover of LAUSD’s failing schools.

“ I appreciate you raising your concerns and pushing all of us to think about the intended and unintended consequences of the Board’s decision on Tuesday,” the superintendent wrote last week, responding directly to each concern. “I encourage all of us to continue this dialogue so that we develop a quality process for all of our students. I want to assure you this process is not a giveaway of schools, but rather an opportunity for us to work together to ensure we are developing and implementing instructional plans that serve all of our students.”

In a nutshell, it seems the superintendent isn’t at all concerned about this decision –which he helped steer-- because he has several beliefs under his educational hat that I have yet to absorb:

--Charters are public schools and are, in fact, under LAUSD’s jurisdiction. In other words, they belong to LAUSD.

--The resolution allows the superintendent to spell out more rules and regulations that the charters and non-profits would have to follow that didn’t exist prior to the action, giving the board more controls.

--The Los Angeles unified school board will screen proposals and determine which organization should operate the school, which could still remain with LAUSD .

In addition, he addressed one of the most primary concerns for me: who would care for special education students, from the developmentally disabled to speech impediments to juvenile delinquents – who legally must be served by the district?

The process, he wrote, allows the district to “put criteria in to ensure we serve all of our students.”

“We will not approve plans that cannot serve the student population of the new or program improvement 3+ schools (failing schools). Per the resolution, “the student composition at each new school must be reflective of the student composition at the schools it is intended to relieve (in terms of demographics, including but not limited to race/ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, English Learners, Standard English Learners, Special Education, foster care placement), with ongoing review mechanisms in place to ensure retention and student composition at each school continues to reflect that of the overall school community.

“Just to clarify your last point,” Cortines wrote, “all students are under the purview of LAUSD, even if they attend a charter. We work with our charter partners to ensure special education students receive the support services they require.”

Another issue was the one of parent involvement – which will now be part of the application process to obtain any LAUSD school. Parents will have to be included under this scenario, he said, and will part of the process.

“Finally, all of our schools, traditional, pilot, magnet, charter, etc. are the responsibility of the Superintendent and Board of Education. We are accountable to ensuring the quality of all of the schools.”

The bulk of the decision-making will rest in the hands of Cortines, a seemingly able top administrator whose navigated the political turmoil of the district rather even-handedly.

But as writer Danny Weil, whose authored a book about charter schools, pointed out, there are issues that loom no one even thought of before. For instance, he wanted to know, who will own the buildings, who will pay for the upkeep of the operations and will the charters pay to use the facilities?

David Kooper, chief of staff for school board member Richard Vladovic, explained the district will continue to own the campuses, but the upkeep, leasing rate and other issues will be negotiated.

Each charter will have the agreement for five years, with two site visits from Los Angeles officials, twice a year, Kooper explained.

I rarely have received emails enthusiastic about this plan. But last week I received two.

“As someone who has researched and written about the LAUSD for over a decade I have

to say that this is the right direction for this oversized and academically challenged
district,” wrote David Coffin, who is running for 51st Assembly District. “Since 1997
over a quarter of a million high school students have dropped out of the district.
Evidence of this was in a study I wrote back in 2007 called “Where have all the
Seniors Gone?”

Another reader, Steve Kupfer, emailed: “I believe that this  

experiment is ultimately a response to a problem that seems to
had no answer under traditional jurisdiction. I'm eager to see how

student achievement- the true gauge of its success- is impacted.

“I could not agree with you more that it is the role of parents and

family that play a critical role in our public school system, but I

also believe that it's time to give alternative means a chance, and

the desperation felt in the state of California has brought that

alternative upon us quickly given the state of the increasing budget

deficits in schools.”

OK, so I’m a hold out. It takes me a long time to come to grips with what

makes sense too so many people. I just feel uneasy, but then change makes

most of us uncomfortable.

A special education teacher seems to feel the same way. 
“I work with the two student constituencies that you listed as likely  
to be left out by the charters, the special education population.  I  
have been asking what will happen to the students with disabilities  
and delinquency issues. Everyone says not to worry,” she wrote. “Yet I worry.”