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Under protest, LAUSD meets judge's deadline on offering classrooms to charters

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L.A. Unified met its Wednesday deadline to comply with a judge's order requiring the district to revise its offers of classrooms to charter schools despite concurrently filing court papers challenging the order, which it argues will unfairly favor charter students and "dislocate tens of thousands of [district] students from their neighborhood schools."

Under a state law approved by voters in 2000, Proposition 39 requires districts to share space equally among public school students, including those in charters. Last month, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Terry A. Green sided with the California Charter Schools Association and found that L.A. Unified was not complying with the law.

But in a court filing this week, the district asked Green to reconsider his order, which it said would force students to "spend more time on buses, cross gang lines and attend schools that will need to reconstitute disruptive multi-track school calendars." L.A. Unified attorneys plan to file numerous briefs appealing the order, which they called unlawful, this week, said David Huff, an attorney for the district. 

"The district cannot simply allow this order to stand as precedent," Huff said. "First and foremost it’s unconstitutional. It results in creating a two-tiered public school system on a single public school site where students attending charter schools will have far greater access to public school facilities than in-district students, and such a result does not meet the equal protection clause or the fundamental right to a public education under the California Constitution."

When allocating space to charter schools, the law requires the district to look at all space at a school site, look at the total number of students served at that site, and make an equitable offer to charter schools based on the same allocation, said Ricardo Soto, the general counsel for the Charter Schools Association.

But part of the debate centers on what defines a classroom. Do specially-designated rooms such as those for special needs students or preschoolers count? What about parent centers, computer labs, or classrooms still on the drawing board? The association argues in its briefs that all of those constitute classrooms no matter whether or how they are used.

The district uses a standard number depending on grade level to assign the number of students to a classroom. Soto said this is illegal because the law requires the district to look at the schools that students would have attended had they remained in the district and allocate with that in mind.

"What the district is trying to do to cause this outrage concerning this ruling is to confuse all the issues," Soto said.

"They're lumping in parent centers, with science labs, with the classrooms that district students are using for the purposes of trying to confuse the issue. When all we're saying in our motion is that based on our review of the data they had provided to charter schools, they were using a district-wide standard to determine what to offer at a specific school site to a charter school, which the law prohibits." 

But Huff said the standard ratio is applied at all schools and therefore ensures students at charters enjoy the same students-per-classroom ratio that their district peers experience. Following the judge's order would result in allocating classrooms with class sizes as low as eight students on the charter school side compared to 24 students on the district side of the campus, Huff said.

The district's court filing included such new data from an "administrative analysis" of what it would look like to apply the court's order to the school district next year, Huff said. He said the effect would be "staggering."

"It results in dislocating literally tens of thousands of students from their neighborhood schools in order to make way for this over-allocation of space to charter schools," Huff said.

Of the 36 charter schools the district said are affected by the judge's order, 31 agreed to "alternative agreements" with the district that did not require a revised offer of classroom space for this upcoming school year, Huff said. Five charter schools, including CLAS Affirmation, Los Angeles International Charter High School, Today’s Fresh Start, Valor Academy and WISH, requested revised offers, Huff said.

Huff said the five revised offers, if accepted and implemented in the next school year, would have an "immediate impact on district programs."

"The district has been forced to take 27 set-aside classrooms that were being used for music programs, college-ready courses, special-needs programs, student testing, child psychologists, small learning communities, Beyond the Bell, and student intervention [and] eliminate that space and provide it now exclusively to the five charter schools in what the district contends is an over-allocation," Huff said. 

Because of budget cuts to the court system, the challenge of the judge's order will not be heard until September, well after the school year starts early in mid-August. Huff said the appeal paperwork the district plans to file this week results in an automatic stay, or hold, on the judge's order, but that could be challenged in turn by the charter schools association.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).