In Partnership with 74

More School Space, More Problems

Hillel Aron | August 15, 2012

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Starting in 1997, Los Angeles began passing a series of bond measures to fund construction of new schools. Since then, the city borrowed a total of $19.5 billion to build 131 schools– some with large, beautifully designed (and expensive) campuses like the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools and the High School for the Visual and Performing Arts just north of downtown.

The creation of these new schools is being touted by LAUSD and, according to a new study from UC Berkeley’s Bruce Fuller, has been associated with higher achievement for elementary students.   But with many riches come many problems, and equitable distribution of school space among district and charter schools has been — and continues to be — a major headache for charter proponents and Superintendent Deasy.  Blame it on Prop. 39, passed in 2000, and a judge’s new ruling that has thrown the situation into further disarray and uncertainty.

At the time all those bonds were being passed, the economy was booming and student enrollment was growing. In 1997, there were 680,430 kids attending LAUSD. That number trudged steadily upward, peaking at 747,009 in 2003.

Proposition 39 was something of a double edged sword. Passed by California voters in 2000, it made it easier to pass local school district bonds– a major reason why LA was able to raise $19.5 billion. But that wasn’t all– Prop 39 also included a vaguely written clause, that schools had to share facilities “fairly among all public school pupils, including those in charter schools.”

Of course, not every charter school gets its facilities from the school district. Many of them build or rent their own campuses. Of the 186 Independent Charter Schools, only about 80 of them apply to the district for facilities. After they apply, according to Ricardo Soto, a lawyer for the California Charter Schools Association, there is a back and forth process, based on how many kids and how many in-district kids the charter school plans on enrolling. Many of these charters end up sharing campuses with district schools.

Prop 39 mandated that districts divide up classrooms equally. Last month, a judge ruled that the law applies not only to classroom space, but any space that could be used for instruction. LA Unified will appeal the ruling. In statement, Superintendent John Deasy (himself a champion of the charter school movement) called the decision “a devastating blow to public school students.” He added:

Under the order, students attending District-operated neighborhood schools may be displaced to other locations, through involuntary busing and other means, in order to provide additional space to charter schools.  Further, the District may be forced to eliminate space for essential programs, including Special Education and English Learner.  The consequences would be devastating to our families, especially at a time of severe budget cuts.

But, as Soto told me, “LAUSD is not in position to argue that they don’t have space. Based on enrollment figures, their district space is growing.”

Indeed, attendance started to shrink back down several years ago, largely due to the declining birthrate in Los Angeles (in line with that of California as a whole). As of October 2011, enrollment was back down to 664,000, below even what it was in 1997.

Now, the district looks at student-to-classroom ratios as a whole, and then decides how many classes to give charter schools. But the recent court ruling says that the district must use “comparison schools”– schools in the area that the student may have attended. The ruling also said that the district must include any rooms that could be used as classrooms in calculating the total available classrooms. That would likely not include a teacher’s lounge, but could include, say, a computer lab.

Both parties have agreed that the new rules shouldn’t be applied for at least another year, when the district has had a chance to appeal. While the court system has seen plenty of school reform skirmishes lately, this isn’t really one of them. It’s more of a territorial dispute.

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