The Los Angeles Unified School District, grappling with high dropout rates and a $400 million budget shortfall, must now also contend with angry parents who are seeking alternatives for their children outside the nation’s largest school district.

The advent of charter schools that often publicize their stark differences from LAUSD-run schools are seen as an attractive draw to some parents — lower classroom sizes, more individual attention to students and less bureaucracy.

Green Dot Charter Schools have begun to establish a beachhead in Los Angeles, with 18 schools operating, including one that is reopening in Venice this fall.

“Green Dot Public Schools is leading the charge to transform public education in Los Angeles and beyond so that all children receive the education they need to be successful in college, leadership, and life,” states the organization’s Web site.

But with an educational revolution of sorts already underway in Westchester, some question if the move to create more charter schools on the Westside will compliment or conflict with the autonomy movement.

LAUSD already has 128 charter schools, more than any other school system in the nation, enrolling about seven percent of its 700,000 students.

Charters are free, independently run, and publicly funded schools that are not bound by either the state education code or many school district dictates. That is one of the many reasons why A.J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, says he is opposed to the charter system.

“Charters do not educate students any better than traditional schools,” Duffy asserted.

From a teacher’s perspective, the union president says that educators who leave a school district for a charter school can no longer purchase healthcare from the school district and do not have the same protections that they would with an organization such as UTLA.

“Teachers who go to charters are at-will employees,” Duffy noted, meaning that they can be terminated without cause at any time.

Ben Austin, the executive vice-president of the Parents Revolution, led a group of parents from Mar Vista to the June 30th LAUSD Board of Education meeting to demand that the school district improve its local elementary and middle schools or face the possibility of losing more students to charters schools.

A press release announcing the event stated that “if parents don’t receive the change that they are asking for, they will take back their power by pulling their children out of failing LAUSD-run schools and send them to a high-performing charter school.”

Austin is a former Green Dot board member.

Green Dot Chief Executive Officer Marco Petruzzi says that his organization is largely focused on creating a feeder pattern for high schools from the middle schools, including on the Westside.

“Charter schools are a vehicle to achieve more flexibility and freedom in education and academic achievement for children,” Petruzzi told The Argonaut. “But they are not necessarily an educational model.”

The cost to begin operating a charter school can be quite expensive, says James Stapleton, principal at Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester.

“At Palisades Charter High School, they had to hire an accountant to handle all of their money,” said Stapleton, a former principal at Paul Revere Charter Middle School, which was once a feeder school to Palisades.

“It can be very expensive to start a charter school network.”

Petruzzi acknowledged that the initial operating costs could be very high.

“It can be expensive to start an independent charter school, absolutely,” the Green Dot CEO conceded. “We’re not immune to the fiscal patterns of the state, and philanthropy has shrunk due to the economic recession.”

Kelly Kane, president of the Westchester-Playa del Rey Education Foundation, believes that charters have a place in any discussion about educational reform.

“They typically have smaller numbers of students, and parents get more attention from the administration, as do the students,” said Kane, whose two children attend Westport Heights Elementary School in Westchester. “However, destroying the public school system to try to implement reform does not make good sense.”

Petruzzi admitted that while teachers who leave LAUSD to join charter schools are no longer eligible for LAUSD medical plans, the Green Dot plan is more attractive to many teachers.

“We offer better coverage than LAUSD,” he said.

At Westchester High School, a governance model that Duffy and many of the school’s teachers believe was based on the Palisades High charter was backed by the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa and the LAX Coastal Area Chamber of Commerce as one of three proposed possibilities in a governance council election earlier this spring. The proposal ultimately lost to a structure that emphasized more teacher and parent seats on the governance council as opposed to more community and local business interests on the board.

Stapleton feels that the ongoing autonomy movement in Westchester has the opportunity to provide much needed reform and therefore charters may not be the right answer.

“You can still get (reform) by putting your heads together and working on solutions like we’re doing already,” the principal said. “I really don’t see the need for (a charter network).”

Animo Venice Charter High School, which is part of the Green Dot charter system, is operating in Westchester and will be moving to a building at the site of Broadway Elementary School in Venice in the fall. The school’s principal, Tommy Chang, says that one advantage that Animo Venice has is the size of its student population, which is 560.

“I like to say that because we are such a small school, I know the front, back and side of every student, so I can recognize them all if they’re in front of me or running away from me,” Chang joked.

Chang does think that traditional public schools and charters can compliment each other.

“They definitely need to be working together,” he said.

The school, which has been in existence since 2004, recruits locally and holds a public lottery annually for students who wish to attend Animo Venice.

Duffy says that he is confident that Westside parents whose children attend local public schools will by and large not be swayed by claims that Green Dot can better educate their children.

“I really think that they will see through the Green Dot smokescreen, because most of the Westside schools are very good,” he said.

The union president feels that parents opt for charter schools because of their frustration with the politics and bureaucracy at LAUSD.

“The district does not seem to understand that the way that they view education has not been successful, and that is why some parents are looking at charter schools,” he said.

Petruzzi reiterated that while Green Dot charter schools are not the only option for students to get a good education, they are very good options.

“We have a very strong record in our elementary, middle and high schools,” he concluded. “What we provide is an alternative with more freedom and flexibility for high student achievement.”

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