By Howard Blume | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 13, 2008
More Los Angeles campuses will have to make room for charter schools, even if some teachers are forced to give up their classrooms and become roving instructors, under a litigation settlement approved by the Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday.
The agreement requires the school district to inventory all properties and work directly with charter schools to find space on or off campus. Charter advocates say finding and paying for facilities is their No. 1 challenge.
The settlement signals "new cooperation" toward serving all students -- whether they attend a charter or a traditional school, supporters said.
"We share the pain of overcrowding equally," said Caprice Young, president of the California Charter Schools Assn., a party to both suits. "We in the charter school movement recognize that the Los Angeles Unified School District has a space crunch, and we all have to work together to create great facilities for all kids."
Agreeing to the possibility of roving instructors, called "traveling teachers," was perhaps the major -- and most controversial -- concession by the school district. Because of classroom shortages, these teachers move from room to room with cartloads of materials throughout the day, an intensely unpopular assignment.
The school district could provide no figures on how many teachers travel, but their numbers have declined dramatically in recent years with the construction of new schools and declining enrollment.
Two lawsuits were filed in May under a state law that calls for public school campuses to be "shared fairly." Charters are independently run public schools freed from many provisions that govern other schools, including adherence to union contracts and district curriculum.
The school board approved the settlement by a 4-3 vote after a closed session.
Board member Richard Vladovic dissented, recalling the time he "traveled" as a middle school teacher early in his career. "I couldn't spend the time I wanted to focus on my lessons and on meeting with students and counseling them," Vladovic said. "I felt my students got cheated." He also worried that traditional schools would lack needed space and flexibility to improve their schools.
Before the litigation, the two sides had been split on facilities, especially with L.A. Unified dealing with its own classroom seat crunch. Currently, 143 district schools operate on a year-round schedule, and 42 have a shortened school year. Even after the district completes a $12.6-billion school construction program, adding about 165,000 seats, officials say some schools will remain overcrowded.
At newly constructed district schools, officials have rarely considered charter school needs, except in rare cases when seats are left over. And no existing school was to be significantly hindered by a charter. Moreover, the review of available space was partly an honors system, with principals disclosing whether or not they could house a charter school.
Over the last decade, charter schools have operated out of churches, high-rises, warehouses and portables slapped down in parking lots. They are supposed to model academic innovation, but officials also saw another benefit.
"Charters could go into storefronts," said board member Julie Korenstein, who voted against the settlement. "They were increasing space so our [traditional] schools would become less overcrowded. Putting them back on our campuses does just the reverse."
L.A. Unified now oversees 125 charter schools with 47,000 students, more charters than any school system in the nation. About a dozen are in district-owned facilities. These include three of the 10 small high schools operated by Green Dot Public Schools, which filed the lawsuits along with PUC Schools, six charter parents and the charter association.
"In other cities, people offer facilities if we come," said Green Dot founder Steve Barr. "We should be looking at this strategically -- together."
The settlement aims at that goal, substituting a five-year plan for a cumbersome, almost ad hoc process that gives charter schools little advance notice on availability, and then guarantees space for only one year. The agreement, which leaves many details to the future, relies much on good faith.
Negotiators for the charter schools said they made numerous concessions and that the terms of the agreement do not represent their view of state law. Board member Yolie Flores Aguilar said the settlement protects "our schools from staying on or going back to [year-round schedules], making sure we don't bus kids out of their neighborhood or put students back in portables."
Charter advocates said they expected the agreement to open up many more new and existing campuses to charter schools, which is precisely what critics worry about.
"This is the kind of thing that makes everyone in the school business crazy," said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Assn. Charter schools are "the interlopers here. They land from outer space, get kids to sign up and now they say, 'We want special accommodations made for us.' "
The agreement still needs the formal approval of other parties to the suit, including parents and the boards of the charter schools.