A reform movement that Los Angeles Unified School District officials have touted as “historic” has not gone as smoothly as district leaders and others had hoped.

The Public School Choice initiative, which LAUSD voted to approve last year, is soliciting bids from charter and private operators to take possession of what district officials call “failing schools.” An advisory vote began Tuesday, February 2nd on the LAUSD school board-backed initiative that could give control of the aforementioned schools to approved applicants seeking to take over a school.

Green Dot Charter Schools, a popular independent operator that has had some success after taking over underperforming schools, has submitted an application.

Charter school proponents, teachers and their allies have exchanged accusations of manipulating parents and misleading the public about the other’s motives.

Ben Austin, executive director of the Parent Revolution, a parent organization affiliated with Green Dot, claimed that members of United Teachers Los Angeles have been using underhanded tactics during the application period.

“Some teachers have used access to parents to manipulate and lie to them,” he accused. “No matter what side you’re on, this should always be about student improvement.”

A.J. Duffy, the president of UTLA, claimed that members of Austin’s group, a collection of parents from various schools who have vociferously advocated for improved conditions on LAUSD campuses, are the ones who are misleading the public.

“They go to rallies and claim that they are from a certain neighborhood when they are a citywide organization, not a neighborhood group,” Duffy said.

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines addressed some of the challenges that the school district has dealt with during the process leading up to the advisory vote.

“Despite the progress that we are making in the Public School Choice process with transparency and community involvement, we are still having challenges with establishing a culture of respect and integrity across our community,” the superintendent wrote. “Throughout this process, I have encouraged all of us to act with the highest level of integrity. I have set clear guidelines that no stakeholders should disrupt meetings or advocate on school grounds.

“Unfortunately,” Cortines continued, “some individuals have not acted as appropriate role models. All of us need to make an informed recommendation about which instructional plan will provide their children with the best opportunity to succeed in life.”

UTLA has challenged the school reform plan as a giveaway of public schools to private interests. The union filed a lawsuit to halt the district initiative last month, accusing LAUSD of acting in an unlawful manner without the consent of the district’s teachers.

Duffy said the lawsuit is the union’s way of correcting what it alleges is an illegal solution to an ongoing problem within the district as to how to best educate students.

“We view this as trying to stop a process that we feel is ‘top-down’ from LAUSD,” he said.

Pete Accari, UTLA’s representative at Westchester High School, says he also sees the initiative that way.

“I’m leery about it, because it was approved without the majority approval of the faculty and there are issues of giveaways to private entities,” Accardi said.

Austin, a former board member of Green Dot, denies that his organization is a stalking horse for charter schools.

“Our goal is not to charterize the district,” he said via telephone from Sacramento. “Our goal is to use charters and community organizing to teach the district how to run schools.”

While there is evidence that some children who have switched to charter schools from traditional schools have shown improvement in certain subjects, a study by Stanford University showed no discernible difference between students in charter schools and those who are enrolled in traditional school districts.

Austin said his organization, which has a number of members from Mar Vista, believes that the school choice plan is an opportunity to change how students are educated at LAUSD.

“The stakes are very high,” he said. “This is about the future of our children.”

Austin was not very complimentary on the way that the school district has handled the application operation.

“The process has been about adults, not students,” he asserted. “There is an inherent conflict of interest because the district is functioning as judge and jury.”

Another topic of discussion that has arisen throughout the reform effort is the definition of a “failing school.”

Accardi thinks that the district’s interpretation, largely based on test scores, is too loose.

“If you’re making gains, like we have been over the last two years, then you’re not failing, in my opinion,” the teacher said.

That is one area where both sides seem to agree — the definition of a “failing school” can be very broad and very general.

“There is no perfect definition of a ‘failing school,’” Austin said. “I don’t support walking away from schools that are not doing well, but there are a lot of things that go into defining whether a school is failing.”

Westchester High, which has had its share of academic problems in recent years, increased its API (Academic Performance Index) score by 26 points last year. In addition, it passed its inspection by the Office of Environmental, Health and Safety last year after failing in 2008.

Westchester High Principal Bruce Mims called the 2008 report “a stain on our school,” adding, “we spent a good part of last year trying to get off the poor list and weren’t able to.”

Parent Revolution members have targeted Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista as a failing school, even though the school has raised its API score by more than 50 points over the last two years.

Duffy issued the Parent Revolution and other charter schools a challenge: accept English language learners and special needs students, as public schools do.

“Then let’s see who can organize parents better,” UTLA’s president said. “If we’re going to have a competitive system to create the best, let’s level the playing field.

“We will create an educational system that outshines any charter school,” Duffy stated.

Voting will take place again on Saturday, February 6th. The LAUSD board will vote on the final recommendations Tuesday, February 23rd.

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