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Union Wants Early Say on School Reform

A coalition led by the L.A. teachers group will reveal its own plan for revamping the district a day before the mayor outlines his proposal.

April 15, 2006|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Intent on being a player in the ongoing scrum over the future of Los Angeles schools, the powerful teachers union and a coalition of community organizations will outline Monday their own plan to overhaul the city's public school system.

The move, union officials said, is timed to try to preempt and influence Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is expected to present a broad sketch of his vision for taking control of the Los Angeles Unified School District during his first State of the City address on Tuesday.

"We've wanted to get out first with a set of reforms and not look like we were reacting to the mayor or anyone else," said Joel Jordan, the director of special projects for United Teachers Los Angeles.

That objective grew complicated last week when reports surfaced about a proposal that the mayor's advisors had compiled and quietly circulated outside of City Hall. The draft proposal -- which aides to the mayor said would probably change as he finalizes his plan in the coming weeks -- suggested dozens of wide-ranging reforms, including gutting the district's central bureaucracy and extending the school day and year.

Similar to the City Hall proposal, the UTLA-led coalition's plan calls for a dramatic decentralization of power in the nation's second-largest school system. According to an outline of the plan provided by the union, school councils would take control of budgets and hire teachers and administrators.

This approach has been tried previously but was never fully successful, and Supt. Roy Romer essentially killed those efforts when he was hired six years ago.

The union would seek state legislation to increase funding in order to lower class sizes.

Union officials are calling for the sprawling system's eight regional districts to be replaced by four or five "support units" that would provide services and be controlled by a slimmed-down central bureaucracy.

But the coalition also wants teachers -- "through their union" -- to be responsible for faculty training and "developing and assessing curriculum" taught to students.

Foreshadowing what could become a stumbling block during contract negotiations the union and district will open this summer, Romer dismissed the idea of allowing teachers to design courses.

Romer attributes much of the impressive gains elementary-grade students have made on state exams in recent years to his decision to require nearly all elementary schools to use a common curriculum. The standardized lesson plans, he said, have allowed the district to hold schools accountable for progress and to better teach in a lowincome, urban district where families often move students from campus to campus.

"I inherited a district, if you look at the scores, that was just way at the bottom. We have moved it up radically. That movement has been because we raised expectations and put in a rigorous curriculum," Romer said. "Most of this district has got to raise itself up still a lot higher than it is. And ... we need to have a central coherence. We can't have our teachers doing things 50 different ways, you can't manage that."

The union plan contrasts sharply with the mayor's push to scale back the authority of the seven-member, elected school board and to assume the power to appoint the district's leaders. The coalition's plan envisions an expanded school board with 11 to 15 full-time members instead of the current part-time positions, UTLA President A.J. Duffy said.

The core of UTLA's leadership, elected last year by the union's 47,000 members, has for years called on the union to address social justice and school reform issues while also negotiating teacher salaries and benefits.

By joining forces with leading community groups, which include the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now and Inner-City Struggle, union leaders said they aim to build a grass-roots movement behind the reform effort that will counter the mayor's bully pulpit.

"Parents and students have not been involved in creating the mayor's plan," said Inner-City's executive director, Luis Sanchez. "It is a top-down approach, in the same way the district deals with schools now."

School board President Marlene Canter said that, while she doesn't agree with all the union's plans, she is encouraged by what she sees as common issues shared by UTLA and the district.

"I've always said unions are the biggest levers for change if we're working together," Canter said. "If we go to the bargaining table with our focus on student achievement instead of only isolating out monetary issues and salary, I welcome that."

The union's one-page outline is considerably less detailed than the 43-page draft circulated by the mayor's team. Duffy acknowledged they would unveil only a "shell of a comprehensive plan" at Monday's news conference. And Jordan and other union officials said the mayor's takeover campaign had forced the union to rush somewhat so as not to be left on the sidelines.

"When we saw he was serious about a takeover," said Jordan, "I said, 'Oh, no, this is going to force us to come out more quickly. We've been wanting to do this for years but haven't been in a position of power."

Some parent groups complained this week that they were being left out of the discussions with the mayor's office, and even Romer sent Villaraigosa a letter this week asking to be included.

Other proposals are also in the works. Charter school operator Steve Barr has unveiled a proposal to restructure the district along the lines of his Green Dot Public Schools -- smaller, more personalized campuses. And state Sen. George Runner (R-Antelope Valley) and Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge) are expected Monday to discuss their legislation calling for L.A. Unified to be broken into several smaller districts.

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