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L.A. Public Schools Woo Students With Choices

May 17, 1994

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Los Angeles schools are taking out newspaper ads and running TV commercials to recruit students under California’s new open enrollment law, which allows youngsters to attend any school in their district that has room.

″We’re a safe, air-conditioned, closed campus that has won five beautiful school awards,″ trumpets the Braddock Drive School in its 30-second spot on public television.

″Why pay $12,000 when you can get the same plus more for FREE?″ asks a newspaper ad paid for by Grant High School teachers wooing private school students.

Open enrollment - signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson last year - is spurring schools to compete for students because the state doles out funding according to enrollment at each school. Supporters of school choice, including President Clinton, say allowing schools to compete will make them better.

Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest district with 643,000 students, isn’t the first to offer its students options. New York City, with the biggest school system in the nation, is in its first year of a similar program. And other California districts are also accepting applications for next year.

But education reformers are watching Los Angeles closely.

″Given the fact that there is physical room to move around in the district, L.A. may in fact become the laboratory for what is going to happen,″ said Julia Koppich, deputy director of Policy Analysis for Education, a think tank at the University of California at Berkeley. ″Will parents actually select different schools?″

Los Angeles has about 22,000 classroom seats up for grabs in the fall. It also has budget problems, falling test scores and a rancorous relationship between the administration and teachers.

″It’s not a cure-all. We’re still going to have disgruntled parents,″ district spokesman Larry Carletta said. ″But we feel it’s a good way for families to have a voice in their child’s education.″

Others fear the policy won’t help poor students because districts won’t pay to transport them to the school of their choice. Free transportation is available only to a student’s neighborhood school.

Schools lacking extra room are mostly in neighborhoods like South Central Los Angeles, where immigrants have packed classrooms to capacity over the past decade.

No students will be bumped from their neighborhood schools to make room for students from elsewhere in the district. If there are more applicants than seats at a school, a lottery will be held.

″We make academic achievement our top priority,″ Lupe Sonnie, principal of Lincoln High School, told a group of prospective students visiting on Monday. She described her school’s computers, landscaping and academically successful students.

Michael Bennett, principal of the Parkman Middle School, where there’s room for at least 300 more students, said he likes the policy because it encourages parents to get involved.

″They need to go out and check schools and make a judgment,″ he said. ″They’re doing that now, and that’s good for everyone.″

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