LAUSD BOARD MEMBER STEVE ZIMMER says that new legislation benefiting charter schools will “level the playing field” with traditional public schools, but does not think that competition between the two is “a magic pill” for public education.

Charter school advocates say they are heartened by two bills recently signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that could give them the opportunity to expand their current crop of schools into areas where they have long sought to plant an educational stake.

“The governor recently took a bold step in his commitment to the equal treatment of public school students attending charter schools by signing into law Senate Bills 191 and 592,” Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, said in a statement.

SB 191, sponsored by Sen. Roderick Wright of Inglewood, creates a uniform funding model for charters, which could ostensibly give school districts more incentive to approve them.

SB 592, introduced by Sen. Gloria Romero, will allow 30 to 35 charter schools to hold title to facilities built with state bond dollars, potentially allowing them to own and control approximately $500 million in charter school facilities.

“By giving charter schools ownership of their facilities, this important legislation will continue to address the ‘de facto cap’ that the charter school movement faces — a lack of equitable facilities resources,” Wallace stated.

Los Angeles Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westchester, Playa del Rey, Venice and Del Rey, believes that charter schools have a role in the educational debate.

“They are one of our greatest incubators for change,” Zimmer said in his first interview with The Argonaut since winning the District 4 seat in March to replace the retired Marlene Canter. “In an ideal world, charter schools would be instrumental in school and instructional design, and not seen as competitors to traditional schools.”

The two bills signed into law by the governor will “even the playing field” among traditional schools, charters and other independent operators, Zimmer added.

A group of parents in Mar Vista has been soliciting signatures from parents in Venice and Mar Vista for the possibility of creating a local charter middle school on the heels of LAUSD’s approval of the “School Choice Plan,” which will allow nonprofit charter schools and other independent operators to file applications to take over the management of schools that are deemed underperforming or failing.

Barbara Einstein, a Mar Vista resident who belongs to the local organization called the Parent Revolution, sent an e-mail in August to parents of elementary school-aged children in Venice, asking them to gather signatures to initiate the process of creating a charter middle school.

“As you know, on August 25th the Public School Choice Resolution was passed by the LAUSD school board. If implemented correctly, this resolution is going to give parents like us better options and choices in our schools,” Einstein wrote.

“But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that we can no longer wait for LAUSD and their huge bureaucracy to take action. That’s why we are going to begin to collect parent signatures for a new charter middle school in Venice to serve our children.”

The e-mail was directed to Coby Dahlstrom, president of the Westminster Endowment Group of Westminster Avenue Elementary School, which functions as a booster club for the elementary school.

The Parent Revolution is an entity with close ties to Green Dot Charter Schools. Many of its organizers and board members, like Ben Austin, previously worked for the nonprofit charter organization.

While charter schools have gained popularity and increased enrollment in recent years, they are not always the panacea that parents who are frustrated with school districts that have bloated bureaucracies and high dropout rates have sought.

The Argonaut reported in July that a study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University appeared to dispel previous assertions by charter school advocates that students at independent, nonprofit charters fare better than students who are enrolled in traditional public schools like in LAUSD.

According to the report, 46 percent of the charter schools surveyed showed no significant difference in academic improvement versus their public school peers. Thirty-seven percent fared worse than their academic counterparts and 17 percent demonstrated academic gains that surpassed those in traditional schools.

“The Stanford study was very illuminating,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer also thinks that charter schools like Green Dot do a better job of marketing their strongest features than LAUSD. “I’m not talking about a public relations campaign where you hire a public relations firm,” the school board member explained. “I’m talking about parents going door-to-door with teachers to highlight why their school is an excellent school or how it is improving.”

He pointed out that Playa del Rey Elementary School in Del Rey had the most improved Academic Performance Index score (API) among elementary schools throughout LAUSD. Zimmer also mentioned that two other Del Rey schools, Short Avenue and Braddock Drive elementary schools and Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista had shown recent improvement.

Mark Twain has been cited by members of the Parent Revolution as one of the reasons to explore creating a charter middle school where Venice, Mar Vista and Del Rey students could attend. The school has not performed as well as other Westside middle schools, but has made significant gains in the last two years. Under the guidelines of some LAUSD administrators, it could be classified as failing.

Mark Twain Principal R·ul Fernandez disagrees, and so does Zimmer.

“From my point of view, schools that have been consistently trending downward despite assistance from the district would be the focus of (a possible takeover from independent operators),” the school board member said. “Mark Twain has been trending upward, and I don’t see that they are at risk to be classified as ‘failing.’”

Braddock Drive Elementary School teacher Hannah Leslie has mixed feelings about charter schools.

“Each one is different,” Leslie, who teaches first grade, noted. “If the reason is to have smaller schools where students can learn in a more creative environment, than that’s good. But if they’re pulling away the student population and teachers from traditional schools and deplete our funding, than that would hurt us.”

Zimmer said for parent groups that are unhappy with Mark Twain or other schools, there is a proper way to seek change.

“I would say to the Parent Revolution if the Green Dot folks are so convinced that they don’t want to send their kids to Mark Twain, there is a state process in which they can look at a charter conversion,” he said. “But I’m not into hostile takeovers, or I could not support an effort to shut a school down by promoting the failure of another.

“I would also hope that parents of young children in the area would want to be a part of creating a better school.”

Dahlstrom, who is impressed by Green Dot schools and whose son Wyatt is a third-grader at Westminster Avenue Elementary, agrees.

“I understand the frustration on the part of many parents and I think that having many options is always good,” she said. “But if everyone got involved instead of having fear about a particular school and sent their children to the neighborhood school, our schools would improve.”

Kelly Ann Murphy said she enrolled her sixth-grade son at Paul Revere Charter School in Pacific Palisades after he graduated from Beethoven Elementary School, instead of allowing him to attend Mark Twain.

“I think there is a great need for it,” Murphy responded when asked what she thought about a local middle school created by Green Dot or another nonprofit entity. “We looked at others in the area, including Mark Twain, and I wasn’t impressed with them.”

Murphy, a former Friends of Beethoven president, said that she knows other parents and friends in the Venice/Mar Vista area who send their children to Mark Twain.

“They are very happy there and they think it is beginning to improve,” she said. “But I feel that it was not a good fit for my son’s needs.”

Zimmer, who voted for the School Choice Plan, said he hopes that the public views the initiative as another way to pursue academic internal reforms within the district.

“We are not giving the schools away to charters,” he asserted.

Green Dot and LAUSD officials did not return calls for comment.

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