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Charter school applications: Lodi Unified must be strict but fair

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Posted: Saturday, January 23, 2010 12:00 am

Should a low-key school that serves mainly disadvantaged teens be brought under the umbrella of Lodi Unified School District?

Leaders of the Heritage Peak learning center on Lower Sacramento Road have applied to operate as a charter school in Lodi Unified.

The petition poses a variety of difficult questions.

Among them:

— Would another local charter school open the gate to more area students attending Heritage Peak (which would become Rio Valley Charter School) and cause Lodi Unified to lose money?

— Would an expansion at Heritage Peak come with the strength of staff, oversight and curriculum?

— Would it provide a distinctive and attractive alternative to other area schools?

Lodi Unified already operates one charter school, Joe Serna Jr., and it provides oversight for three others operated by Aspire Schools.

What are charter schools? They're publicly funded ventures that run with more flexibility than traditional public campuses. There is less red tape, more latitude in terms of textbooks, schedules and regulation. Though they operate with a fair degree of independence, they are required to be chartered through a school district, county office of education or the state Department of Education. The overseeing agencies can receive fees for certain administrative or special services related to the schools they charter.

Today, there are 809 charter schools serving more than 341,000 students in California.

Charter schools have gained popularity because they can be more personal, more customized and, in some cases, more academically successful than their traditional counterparts.

The California Charter Schools Association boasts that, on average, students in charter schools achieve higher test scores than those at mainline public schools.

In Lodi Unified, the charters operated by Aspire public schools are, in fact, high achievers, with River Oaks Charter, University Public and Ben Holt College Prep reflecting among the very best scores in the district.

So charter schools can and do succeed.

Lodi Unified has received petitions for two charters in recent months, one from Heritage Peak and one from local educational advocate Robert Closson. The district rejected Closson's petition and is taking a very hard look at the Heritage Peak idea.

By carefully reviewing these petitions, Lodi Unified is doing a public service. After all, taxpayer money shouldn't be flung willy-nilly at just any group of educational reformers.

The new school, ideally, should offer a fresh and different choice to local parents and students.

And students shouldn't be entrusted to taxpayer-supported schools that lack a solid plan of infrastructure.

Yet Lodi Unified, like many cash-strapped districts these days, is in a sticky position. It might be financially wounded by a school it has the power to reject or accept. (The district, by law, is not supposed to consider whether it will take a financial hit by granting a charter.)

Still, there is at least the hint of a conflict of interest in such processes. Every student that a new charter pulls away could cost Lodi Unified $5,200 in average daily attendance revenue. There are safeguards aimed at providing a fair hearing for charters. For instance, if Heritage Peak is rejected by Lodi Unified, it could appeal to the San Joaquin County Office of Education, which could decide it passes muster and charter it directly. If the county rejects it, too, Heritage could go to Sacramento and seek a charter through the state department of education.

So school districts that reject charters do so with some risk — the risk that the charter may succeed anyway, in which case the rejecting district has virtually no control over it, and no chance at administrative or other fees.

Lodi Unified is right to be scrupulous in its review of Heritage Oaks and other charter petitions.

Yet district leaders would be wise to be open-minded and impeccably fair, too.

— The Lodi News-Sentinel

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