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L.A. mayor urges charters to take on more challenging schools and students

March 9, 2011 |  6:00 am

Not long after excoriating the local teachers union, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is taking charter schools to the woodshed as well, saying they need to take on bigger challenges such as turning around low-performing schools and educating greater numbers of disabled students and English-language learners.

In a speech, prepared for delivery at a state charter schools conference in San Diego on Wednesday morning, Villaraigosa offers a milder rebuke than the one he delivered to the union in December. But the occasion was carefully chosen to drive home his points. Villaraigosa will be accepting an award as the “elected official of the year,” according to his office.

“We need you to not only build new schools, but take on the lowest-performing, failing ones,” according to the speech. “We need you to hold yourselves to a higher standard, and hold unsuccessful charters accountable by shutting them down.”

Charter schools are authorized by school districts and other education agencies, but are independently operated, publicly funded and free from some restrictions that govern traditional schools.

In his remarks, Villaraigosa referenced an ongoing debate regarding charter schools: whether they serve the same students as traditional schools.

Charter operators point out that they are required to accept all applicants -- and hold a lottery if too students apply. They say many students enter charter schools performing well below grade level. Charter critics counter that charters serve a smaller percentage of the most difficult-to-educate children.

Villaraigosa put the onus on charter schools to prove the critics wrong: “We need YOU to destroy your detractors’ claims that your success is rooted in ‘cherry-picking’ your students by taking on more of our highest need students: more English-language learners, more students with severe disabilities, more students in foster care, more students coming out of the juvenile justice system.”

The mayor also talked of the need for more cooperation between the traditional school system and charters, with the long-term goal of making charters indistinguishable from other schools.

“We must start blurring the lines between charter and traditional schools until the distinctions cease to exist,” Villaraigosa said. “And we need to end once and for all the damaging us-versus-them mentality that has polluted relations between school districts and the charter community and jeopardized the potential for meaningful reform and positive change that benefits all students. Imagine a public school system that creates a true variety of good choices, rather than a behemoth of a bureaucracy that centrally governs our schools.”

In an interview, Villaraigosa said the speech was intended as a follow-up to his speech in Sacramento in which he lambasted the L.A. teachers union as "one unwavering roadblock to reform.”

At the time, United Teachers Los Angeles responded that it was unfair to characterize the union as anti-reform for favoring some different approaches for improving schools.

Some observers characterized the earlier speech as marking a formal separation between Villaraigosa and the union, his onetime employer and former political ally. The charter community, in contrast, has become tightly allied with Villaraigosa.

And that alliance is ongoing, despite the mayor’s cautionary words. Villaraigosa continues to assert, for example, that “high-quality” charter schools should obtain more campuses under a process that allows bidders to take control of new and low-performing campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

-- Howard Blume