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Charter Schools: Getting Your Child on the List 

How to cut in line, and pervert the concept of public education

Thursday, Oct 13 2011
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On a weekday evening in early spring, about 40 parents crammed into a classroom at Larchmont Charter elementary school. They perched on kindergarten chairs, or sat on the floor, or stood in the hallway, craning their necks.

Larchmont is one of the most desirable schools in Los Angeles. It's also nearly impossible to get into. At that moment, 500 kids were on the waiting list. Admission is by lottery, so it comes down to luck.

Unless you can find a way around the lottery.

click to flip through (6) ILLUSTRATION BY JULIAN CALLOS
  • Illustration by Julian Callos
 

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That's why these parents came to Larchmont. They were looking for a way to cut to the front of the line.

School officials explained how it would work. Parents who agreed up front to make an extraordinary volunteer commitment to the school could get admissions priority. They would be called "founding parents."

They would be asked not only for their time but also for money. The school got public funding, but that wasn't enough to cover costs. The "funding gap" worked out to $2,500 per child, officials said. That was the school's not-so-subtle way of conveying the expected contribution. Larchmont is a public school, but it was behaving more like a private academy.

A public school offers a free education to every child in the community — that's what makes it public. A private school charges tuition and accepts students through a competitive selection process. Larchmont was bridging public and private by exploiting a loophole. Under federal guidelines, charter schools can give admissions priority to "founding parents." That's why these parents were being asked to "found" a school that had opened in 2004.

School officials did warn the parents that Larchmont couldn't guarantee admission to their children. But — wink, wink — no children of founding parents had ever been rejected.

Los Angeles is leading the nation in establishing charter schools. The L.A. Unified School District is ultimately responsible for policing them to make sure they live up to the promise of equal access. The Weekly found that the district is aware of the founding-parent loophole but has done little to close it.

When the state Legislature authorized charter schools in the early 1990s, skeptics feared they would become refuges for highly motivated and affluent parents. Instead of lifting up all kids, they would become private schools, paid for with public money. The safeguard intended to prevent that from happening is the lottery.

That's what makes it so troubling that schools would rig the lottery to favor preferred parents.

"Manipulating the meaning of who's a founding parent directly contradicts the Legislature's attempt to ensure that charters do not become exclusionary places," says Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor and the editor of Inside Charter Schools. "They may be called into court to defend that."

The kindergarten admissions process in Los Angeles is permeated with anxiety. Parents want the best possible environment for their children, and the best possible head start on the road to college. For some, that might be the local public school. But for many — and especially for many in L.A. Unified — the best option might lie elsewhere.

Parents with means have a couple of choices.

One is to move to a neighborhood with better schools, understanding that the school's quality will figure in the purchase price of the house.

The other is to pony up $20,000 or more for tuition to private school.

But good luck getting in. The private school system is as cutthroat as any outside of Manhattan. The admissions process is so mysterious that "education consultants" can charge thousands of dollars to help parents navigate it.

Adding another layer of complexity are magnet schools and, more recently, charters — which are independently run public schools.

Anyone who's seen the documentary Waiting for Superman will be familiar with the admissions process at a charter school. By law, if a school has more applicants than spaces, it must hold a public lottery. But often there is a side door.

"The side door is that you start volunteering at the school a couple years before your kid is ready to go," says Christina Simon, author of Beyond the Brochure, a book about the L.A. private school admissions process. "They donate money. They get on the board. And the wheels are greased for their kids to go there."

All applicants must participate in the lottery. But federal guidelines allow a handful of lottery "preferences," which serve as a sort of VIP entrance. One is for siblings. If an older sibling is already enrolled, the younger child can get in automatically. Another preference is for children of school staff. Yet another is for founding parents.

The preference exists so that parents who go to the trouble of creating a charter school can be assured that their kids will be able to attend. The only restriction is an unwritten rule limiting founders to 10 percent of the school's total enrollment.

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