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“Forty years ago we were in competition with private schools. Now, we’re in competition with charters.”
That was LA Unified board vice president Steve Zimmer yesterday, speaking at a board committee meeting where the issue at hand was district enrollment. The number of kids attending the district’s traditional schools has been declining since 2003, now hovering around 650,000, from a high of about 750,000, according to a presentation to the committee.
The dip reflects, in part, a slowing birthrate in the district that began in 1996 and is projected to increase only slightly over the next few years or so.
But the rise of independent charters is an unmistakable factor, as well: Data from the California Charter Schools Associations shows that the number of independent charters within LA Unified rose to 206 this year from 132 in 2009.
And more are on the way. KIPP, for example, has opened two of nine planned for the district.
The impact of charters on LA Unified is something of an evergreen debate among board members, faced with the district’s losing revenue for every child who forsakes a traditional district school for a charter. It’s a trend with heavy ripples, as lower enrollment leads to fewer dollars, fewer dollars lead to flat wages, flat wages lead to fewer and angry teachers, and angry teachers are now talking about a strike.
But this week, the discussion of charter impact took on a slightly different tone, as board members at their meeting on Tuesday and again yesterday turned introspective, questioning themselves over how to mitigate some of the enrollment trends.
Instead of blaming charters for siphoning off children whose parents want and can contribute for better educational outcomes — a usual and not incorrect assertion — several members pressed the board to do more to make LA Unified school competitive with them.
George McKenna was especially assertive on the issue, describing the district as the elephant that’s being “eaten one bite at a time, and we’re being eaten alive.”
“We may not be to blame, but we are responsible,” he said at one point. “Somebody’s got to fix this. If not us, then who?”
Superintendent Ramon Cortines took it a step further: “Our people are going to have to become more competitive,” he said, adding that the solutions “are not going to come from here; they’ve got to come from out there.”
The problem, of course, is what to do.
As McKenna reminded the board, state laws require the district to approve and renew charter applications unless something is obviously wrong with the requests. This week, for example, 15 charters came before the board for approvals. Only one was denied.
McKenna suggested one possibility, that the district hire professional fundraisers to entice wealthy Angelinos to keep the district in mind when making donations.
“I don’t know how small, independent entities can overcome a behemoth like LA Unified if we put our resources to it,” he said.
More likely, board members will have to find their answers elsewhere, including the usual spectrum of curricula, quality instruction, modernized buildings, upgraded technology — in short, all the usual issues that members wrangle over during the course of just about every meeting.
This week, though, for some inexplicable reason, the issue of enrollment decline seemed to take on a new urgency, as if a critical mass had been reached a point demanding new strategies to staunch the bleeding.
Beyond Cortines’s expressing frustrations over some charters’ unwillingness to share “best practices,” board members refrained from criticizing charters for acting in bad faith. To the contrary, they applauded them for providing options that deliver quality education, with Zimmer, for one, defending the “sanctity of family choice.”
At the same time, he said, it’s imperative for the district to take action to give parents the same options within LA Unified as they’re finding outside.
“We have no choice,” he said, “but to address that choice.”