Stop Dividing Parents

United Teachers Los Angeles organized a series of protests against charter schools last week, focusing on co-locations, which the union claims take resources away from district schools sharing space. LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer has also spoken out against charter co-locations, saying, “most often — it’s the host district school that loses. They lose space. They lose students."

This notion of a zero sum game and the approach of pitting district parents against charter school parents are unnecessarily divisive. Should teachers really be leading protests against little kids walking to school and encouraging parents to join them? In some cases, families send one child to a district school and another to a charter because the kids have different needs. So UTLA is essentially asking families to fight not only their neighbors but also themselves.

While lack of conflict doesn’t tend to generate much ink, there are plenty of examples of co-locations that work well, with the district and charter schools sharing not only space but also best practices. Consider, for example, the recent dual language immersion “unconference” co-sponsored by City Language Immersion Charter and Hillcrest Elementary, the district school where it co-locates.

In instances where things do not go as well, Zimmer has unfortunately failed to demonstrate the leadership needed to bring all parties to the table to collaborate and create equitable solutions that would allow all public school students to have the space to learn and thrive. In fact, LAUSD often seems to be the source of the conflict — using the Prop 39 process intentionally to thwart charter school growth and erode support for the law that allows charters to share equally in public school space.

The fact is, both birth rates and district enrollment have been declining, and empty classrooms are gathering cobwebs all over Los Angeles. But instead of offering charters unused classrooms at some of these half- or even entirely empty schools, which would generate rent revenue, the district scrambles to create last-minute programs at the schools where charters request space in order to keep them out. One especially egregious example was at the Highlander Road elementary school campus in West Hills that had been shuttered since 1982 and had fallen into disrepair. After a charter worked for a year on a plan to renovate and use the space, LAUSD suddenly decided it would be used for a new district school instead, angering local residents.

LAUSD also makes life difficult for charters by offering them campuses many miles from the communities they serve and the schools where they request space to co-locate. Or they offer space split across three separate campuses, creating huge logistical difficulties.

Those split-campus spaces are sometimes at schools that are not vastly under-enrolled, meaning that charters will have to take over rooms being used for computer and science labs or to work with kids with special needs. This understandably upsets parents at district schools, although parents often fail to see that their district leaders are intentionally stirring the pot.

An outside arbitrator recently ordered LAUSD to pay $7 million to a charter for failing to follow Prop 39 and provide any space. But even when LAUSD adheres to the letter of the law, the Prop 39 offers often violate the spirit of the law, forcing charters to teach in inadequate spaces such as hallways or to seek pricey private space, which is especially scarce on the West Side.

There are solutions to these issues if the district were to act in good faith. However, the district seems desperate to bring students back to LAUSD to help solve its financial crisis. And instead of improving district schools to attract more neighborhood families and allowing successful programs such as the one at Playa Vista Elementary and Broadway Mandarin Immersion to expand, the district has decided to make life hard on charter families and treat them like second-class citizens.

Here are some solutions that would help everyone play well in the sandbox:

·      Create transparency around available facilities. Keep an online record of the number of classrooms in use at every LAUSD school. 

·      Consider taking the Prop 39 process out of the hands of LAUSD. An independent entity could oversee the process and ensure equity and fairness.

·      In cases where two neighborhood schools only blocks apart are both drastically under-enrolled, consider consolidating those schools and using one of the empty campuses for a charter so that district schools and charters can have separate space.

·      Charter schools pay rent to LAUSD when they co-locate. Give that rent money directly to the district schools forced to share space. This would create an incentive to share and also help the district school compete. Instead of “stealing resources,” the charter school would be providing extra resources directly to the school forced to co-locate.

UTLA and LAUSD need to stop playing games with the Prop 39 process and halt this campaign to pit neighbor against neighbor. Parents like having a choice of schools, and parents at charters and district schools should sit down and work together to generate creative solutions that serve all kids. If our children can learn to share in kindergarten, why can’t we?