Alleging that actions by the nation’s second largest public school district are in violation of the state’s education code, United Teachers Los Angeles has filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District.

UTLA leaders announced the legal action at a press conference at Garfield High School in Los Angeles on December 21st. The union alleges that the school district cannot convert traditional schools into charters without the approval of a majority of permanent teachers.

The legal action stems from the LAUSD school board’s approval of the Public Schools Choice Resolution in August that permits charter schools, independent school operators and even LAUSD to seek leadership of failing schools in the hope of improving student achievement. Thirty-six schools have been targeted for possible conversion to charter schools next year.

Three of the 36 schools are in Local District Three, but none are within The Argonaut’s coverage area, which includes a portion of Local District Three.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of UTLA and a group of Garfield High teachers and parents who will be moving to a new school, Esteban Torres High.

Although many LAUSD schools have made strides in recent years, the district’s dropout rate remains high, and several schools have consistently low Academic Performance Index (API) scores.

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines told a group of parents and district employees on August 25th that there was a certain urgency to improve public schools.

“Students and families are demanding high quality schools. We share the same goal,” he said. “We want all of our students to graduate prepared for college and careers. This is about what is best for our students. We have to work together.”

UTLA President A.J. Duffy said in an interview after the initiative was passed that it could encounter legal trouble.

“If it does pass, it will be tied up in court,” Duffy predicted.

The petition, which was filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks to enjoin district officials from allowing outside operators from converting existing schools that the district has designated as “failing” to charters or non-traditional public schools.

Education Code Section 47605 (a) (2) states “A petition that proposes to convert an existing public school to a charter school that would not be eligible for a loan pursuant to subdivision (b) of Section 41365 may be circulated by any one or more persons seeking to establish the charter school.

“The petition may be submitted to the governing board of the school district for review after the petition has been signed by not less than 50 percent of the permanent status teachers currently employed at the public school to be converted.”

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

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

LAUSD representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

Green Dot Charter Public Schools has been attempting to make inroads on the Westside in recent years. The Parent Revolution, whose executive director Ben Austin is a former Green Dot board member, embarked on a campaign to create a charter middle school in the Venice-Mar Vista area shortly after the district passed the public choice plan.

“In order to make this charter school possible we need over 100 signatures from parents of current fifth graders,” Barbara Einstein of the parent group wrote in an email solicitation to parents in Venice and Mar Vista.

Members of the Parent Revolution include parents whose children attend Walgrove Elementary School in Mar Vista and would attend Mark Twain Middle School.

Kate Anderson, whose twin five-year-old daughters attend Mar Vista Elementary School, has not followed the Parent Revolution’s campaign or LAUSD’s public schools plan, but she thinks that the transition from elementary school to middle school is an important one for both children and parents.

“It really is a crucial point in a child’s life, and it is also where parents begin to disengage from their child’s academic life,” said Anderson, who is a co-chair of the arts, education and culture committee of the Mar Vista Community Council.

There is one charter high school in District Three, Animo Venice Charter High.

Anderson also thinks the process of classifying schools as “failing” can be highly subjective.

“That (definition) can depend on so many variables,” she noted. “It has to be more than just test scores.

“There’s really no easy answer.”

Duffy added, “The school district seems to think that it’s all a matter of high API scores. We think that’s not a good gauge of how to evaluate a school.”

LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who represents District 4, which includes Venice, Playa del Rey, Del Rey and Westchester, did not return calls for comment.

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