Commentary

Los Angeles Charter School Competition: School for the Arts Smackdown Edition

The Los Angeles Times tells the story of two new Los Angeles schools focused on arts education:

One occupies $232 million worth of serious architecture on a promontory overlooking downtown Los Angeles. The other rents cramped space in a South L.A. church.. . .

The Los Angeles Unified school at 450 N. Grand Ave., perched across the 101 Freeway from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, was years in the making and is housed on one of the most expensive and widely praised campuses in the nation. Yet it is only now shaking off more than a year of controversy and false starts in its launch to become the flagship of the district. The Fernando Pullum Performing Arts High School at 51st Street and Broadway may have the feel of something hastily thrown together out of spare parts, but it is led by one of the city’s most respected music educators and has the support of such big-name artists as Kenny Burrell, Jackson Browne, Bill Cosby and Don Cheadle.

Adding a twist to the relationship between these two fledgling schools is this: Fernando Pullum, a charter school run by the Inner City Education Foundation (and named after the music teacher who heads the foundation’s arts program), doesn’t plan to stay in its rented quarters for long. It has its sights on an eventual takeover of 450 N. Grand.

“When our performing arts school is doing one amazing thing after another . . . . people will say, ‘Why is this school in a small church on 51st and Broadway instead of at 450 N. Grand?’ ” said Mike Piscal, chief executive of Inner City schools.

First, the fact that LA Unified spent $232 million on a school for the arts, without even having an arts program or students to enroll in the building goes to the district’s continuing focus on style over substance. Why is the district spending this kind of money on a “Crown Jewel,” while thousands of students continue to fail and suffer in low-performing schools?

In fact, other expensive flagship public schools with new and grand facilities, such as the Santee Education Complex, have not led to improvements in student achievement. Grand facilities do not guarantee any improvement in student performance. Here is hoping that the recent competition from charter schools and the potential for low-performing schools to be taken over by charters, will keep this new $232 million school from faltering.

The bottom line is that Mike Piscal from ICEF charters is waiting and watching. His organization’s small charter school for the arts in the old church building is ready to buckle down and focus on some high quality arts education. The traditional LA public school for the arts with millions more in resources and facilities better watch their back.

Lisa Snell is the director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.