LA school district embraces charter schools in bid to ease overcrowding

LOS ANGELES - The city's troubled school district is embracing charter schools in an effort to ease crippling classroom overcrowding and free administrators to concentrate on solving other problems.

Los Angeles school officials have previously been cool toward new charters, but the district's recent difficulties have led them to rethink that approach. New Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Roy Romer hopes charter schools can supply some of the 200,000 seats needed in the area to keep up with booming enrollment.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, which allows them to operate independently of the school district once approved by the board.

The 711,000-student district, the nation's second largest, that has been grappling with overcrowding, low test scores, toxic school sites, fractious leadership and the threat of state oversight.

However, California law does not provide for the cost of building or buying a charter school, and the projects can only garner state funding after they are established.

''That is absolutely the biggest obstacle to any charter operator,'' said Mary Kayne Heinze, director of media relations for the Center for Education Reform, which tracks the charter movement.

Only a handful of the 37 states that fund charter school laws provided money for leases or construction costs, according to the center.

Some school districts, particularly those with overcrowding problems, have shown a willingness to help charter applicants, said Eric Premack, who publishes a newsletter on the state's charter schools.

''Usually districts that are strapped for facilities, like L.A. and Long Beach, are much more open-minded than districts that have declining enrollment and are losing money because of it,'' Premack said.

Los Angeles Unified has started to seek out deals in which developers use private financing to construct new schools and then sell the buildings to the district. Charter school companies could then lease the buildings for a small fee.

''We view this as a way to buy finished schools without using our staff time and risking the public's money up front,'' said Mott Smith, the division's director of special projects.

The Board of Education agreed to try this method in July, but no deals have yet been reached.

Rob Biniaz is one developer who hopes to use this system to open an elementary school for 500 students using the MicroSociety curriculum, in which the older students spend part of each day role-playing as laborers, politicians and bankers.

''I'm frankly concerned that if we don't get this moving, we'll miss an opportunity,'' he said. ''I come from the private sector, where if there is a good idea and both sides want to do it, it gets done.''

Charter schools vary widely in their management, missions and student bodies and have proven far less controversial than private school vouchers.

Supporters say charter schools challenge existing districts to improve, using healthy competition to motivate them to produce better students.

For each child who chooses to attend, the school gets the per-pupil funding that would have gone to the child's public school.

Critics fear charter schools will drain money and support from traditional public schools. Others say lack of oversight makes abuse and underperformance a danger.

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