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Transformation, Not Turf Wars

Latino leadership is important, but we need to create the conditions for success in remaking the system.

June 02, 1996|RUDY TORRES and CHARLES TAYLOR KERCHNER | Rudy Torres is professor of public policy and Chicano studies at Cal State, Long Beach. Charles Taylor Kerchner is professor of education at the Claremont Graduate School. Their e-mail addresses are: and

The politics of choosing a new Los Angeles school superintendent exemplify the old politics of racial entitlement. It's a matter of turf: claiming territory, gaining a share of the action. Nothing unusual, and it's not surprising that Latinos would take this approach. Jews and Italians came to power in New York by expanding turf; the Chicago Irish founded a political dynasty that continues to this day.

But there's one big problem. The parochial politics of turf-claiming and displacement won't turn Los Angeles into a world-class city or boost its chances of being the capital of the Pacific Rim. At a time when the city desperately needs unifying influences, the politics of racial division compartmentalize and fragment. Ethnicity is substituted for vision and loyalty for leadership.

No one can deny that Los Angeles needs Latino leadership in business, government, the community and education. The LAUSD needs it most of all: a visible symbol, a cultural voice and an advocate for the families whose children are more than half the student population. But picking a Latino leader won't solve the district's problems, just as picking African American superintendents didn't solve problems in a score of eastern cities. For Los Angeles to have successful Latino school leadership, the city needs a transformational politics that views schools as the driving force in rebuilding Los Angeles as a place to live and to prosper in the global economy.

A transformational politics will take one of two forms: reform or liquidation. Business as usual is not an option for the school district; it is organizationally too weak to defend itself against either the do-gooders who want to change it or the predators who want to tear it apart. Any leader who thinks that the schools can be rebuilt as a dressed-up version of an old public bureaucracy is simply wrong.

Liquidation is already happening by default. Families by the thousands have already chosen this route by moving their children to suburban or private schools. Now, whole communities are mobilizing to leave LAUSD.

Liquidation can be done well or badly, by default or by design. It may well be possible to design a system of schools that works better than the current system, but that won't happen by accident. Liquidation is not a passive job. The superintendent of a district about to be split becomes the designer of a transfer plan and part of a larger constituency that tries to make the process orderly. He or she would have to engineer a more sensible breakup strategy than the current secession plan that allows neighborhoods with sufficient organization (currently South-Central, Carson and parts of the San Fernando Valley) to pull away, leaving a wounded remainder.

Leadership for reform requires far different skills, and it requires that the civic coalition create different conditions for success. For reform to work, we need to recognize that it is going to take a long time and will inevitably encounter problems. We need to tame the school governance nightmare in which the school board is nominally in charge but Sacramento controls finance and curriculum while the LEARN program (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now) drives structural change in the schools.

If we choose reform rather than liquidation, we need one clear plan, not 20. Thus far, LEARN is the best articulated of the lot. It has the advantage of linking schools to communities and allowing schools to experiment with different approaches. But it creates a tremendous challenge to a school district organized in a hierarchy that Henry Ford would have recognized and found comfortable. LAUSD is organized as a school system: massive, top-down, rule-bound, standardized. LEARN requires a system of schools, flexible and networked by information more than rules.

But a system of schools requires very strong grass-roots leadership, rather than the sort of fealty to the hierarchy that old-style bureaucracies reward. And here is where Latino leadership weighs in heavily, not with a single "Latino leader," but with the careful nurturing of a generation of leaders. Unless today's Latino leadership solves the problem of expansion of its ranks and collaboration with other ethnic groups, it creates no place for itself except an endless brown-against-black struggle that further estranges the rising middle classes of all groups. It fails to address the creation of schools where the population is of shifting ethnicity. It fails to address schools where children will live in a different culture and economy than their parents' world.

Yes, Los Angeles schools need Latino leadership, but more than finding a single leader, the city needs to create the conditions for success in school transformation. For the last generation, American cities have looked to savior figures--shining knights of all races--who arise to do battle with the forces of ignorance, only to be chewed apart by the racialized factions of urban politics. Chicago did it to Ted Kimbrough and Ruth Love, New York to Joe Fernandez. There are countless others; the average tenure of an urban superintendent still hovers at about two years.

Los Angeles needs a leader who can reform the schools. It does not need a Latino sacrifice to the politics of turf and entitlement.

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