Overheard at a political gathering this fall: "Why are our tax dollars supporting the educations of students from outside our district?"
The person was referring to the nearly 50 percent of 's children who are here on transfer permits from the Los Angeles Unified School District. Marolyn Freedman, director of Student Services for the , recently told me, "The ADA [Average Daily Attendance] funds we receive for these out-of-district students is actually what has been paying for our children's education."
Last spring, before the seriousness of our nation's economic crisis forced the LAUSD to make major cuts in its custodial, office and teaching staffs, its superintendent, Ramon Cortines, decided to take a second look at its exit permit policy.
Back in 1986, when the language academy (then called Edison Elementary) first started dual-immersion classes, the LAUSD had far more students than it had classrooms to contain them. The neighborhood around Edison was largely Spanish-speaking. Test scores were down, and the decision was made to attract English-speaking students to the school with a Dual-Immersion Bilingual Program. Some came from more affluent parts of Santa Monica, but they were not enough to create a 50-50 balance regarded for optimal dual-immersion. At that time, the LAUSD was only too happy to supply enough students to take care of the shortfall.
As years passed, more white families from Santa Monica applied to attend what became the Edison Charter School (a change called for by Proposition 227, which in 1998 brought an end to bilingual education, except by charter). But that happened for only a brief period. Later, Edison gave back its charter, and the SMMUSD board authorized it to have an alternative curriculum so that it could operate as a modified magnet to attract students for an optimal language mix. Now, Spanish-speaking families from out of the district were the ones most often accepted for permit transfers.
As the demographics of permit transfers changed, the LAUSD continued building schools. Then, the economy tanked. Suddenly low on funds due to a plunging economy, the district decided to take those students back so that it might receive the ADA funds that went with them. Soon the districts were squaring off in a battle that looked like David versus Goliath. As fortune would have it, the lumbering giant moved too slowly.
Edison Principal Lori Orum told me, "The announcement came so late in the year [March 17] that Los Angeles parents protested. They even set up a Facebook group called 'Stop the LAUSD from denying permits.' "
In a posting I found on that page, a Westchester parent wrote under a headline reading, LAUSD to Deny Quality Education to Students: "Make no mistake about it, this is all about the money. Your child's education takes a back seat to LAUSD's money woes."
Cortines backed off, saying that students entering their last year in a school with a permit transfer would be exempt. Then, when protesting parents continued to flood school board meetings with complaints, he rescinded his order. However, parents whose children were already on transfer permits would have to apply online to have those permits continued.
"I guess they imagined Spanish-speaking mothers would be opening up their laptops or pulling out their BlackBerries and iPhones, ready to negotiate the Internet to apply for their permits," Yoly Gutierrez, the community liaison for Edison, said with a mocking laugh. "I had parents filling my little office every day as I helped them complete those forms on my computer."
In response to the chaos created by this haggling over students and the funding that comes with them, the California Legislature passed AB 2444, which would allow students to continue to attend the school without reapplying for a permit.
For the time being, Edison Language Academy can relax. But this month, as construction of a new campus begins with the demolition of some of the older buildings, change is ever a constant, and getting new students to come to a school that is under construction could be a challenge.
According to Orum, "With the lifting of rent control and the lessening of affordable housing, many Spanish-speaking families from our area have left the city." The district may need to sell its program to those Spanish-speaking families in the Pico neighborhood that had previously opted for an English-only approach to learning.
As I left the campus after my interviews, I spoke to an African-American father who told me that his daughter is the only child from their neighborhood near Pico Boulevard and 19th Street attending Edison. He says he explored all the options, looked at which schools had the best test scores and offered the best programs. Edison won, hands down.
The question remains whether other families in this city will recognize the jewel in their midst.