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A smaller, better L.A. Unified

The mayor's plan for the school district doesn't fix its biggest problem: runaway bureaucracy.

April 27, 2006|Robert M. Hertzberg | ROBERT M. HERTZBERG is a former Assembly speaker.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in several generations, the crisis in L.A.'s public education system is taking center stage. The Los Angeles Unified School District is sinking from its own bureaucratic weight. The public is no longer willing to accept that fewer than half of our high school students are graduating.

The education establishment is on the defensive, and there are serious backroom discussions among defenders of the status quo and other school district stakeholders to try to come up with a plausible solution before the powers that be are swept away by the force of public outrage.

Whether Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa chose this challenge or was forced to take it, he has now thrown himself fully into the debate. His core message, as conveyed in his State of the City address, is this: "Unless we face head-on the crisis in our schools, we will never truly hold ourselves to account.... We can't be a great global city if we lose half of our workforce before they graduate from high school."

The mayor is spot on and deserves credit for his willingness to spend his political capital on this essential cause. Education is the civil rights issue of our generation, and he gets it.

But how do we really fix the system? I continue to believe that the problem lies in the massive bureaucracy of L.A. Unified and that the district needs to be broken up into smaller ones, with parents, teachers and principals in charge.

With the exception of the school construction unit, decisions at L.A. Unified take a lifetime to get made, and excellent teachers are stifled by dumb and inefficient rules and regulations. If the mayor does not support breaking up the system into smaller parts, a revamped school district should at minimum conform only to the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles. Any solution that maintains L.A. Unified and its 27-city reach is like proposing to build a high-rise on quicksand.

Villaraigosa's current proposal to manage the giant school district through a 27-member Council of Mayors would be untenable for the 26 other cities of the district. His plan would give each mayor a vote proportional to the population of each city -- that means 80% for Los Angeles.

In practical terms, think how that might work. If the superintendent of the new school district gets conflicting instructions from Villaraigosa and, say, the mayor of Cudahy, which mayor will the superintendent take instruction from, and what does that mean for Cudahy's students and teachers? Conversely, if a compromise results in the city of Los Angeles giving a concession to, say, Gardena, how does that serve the students of Los Angeles?

Because of its sheer size and complex nature, our city and its school district demand a different, more comprehensive solution.

The best solution is for Villaraigosa to drop the Council of Mayors concept and instead propose making the boundaries of the new school district contiguous with the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles. The mayor's proposal for student uniforms, longer school hours and smaller schools would then apply only to the children of the city he governs, not to another official's constituents. The complex planning and development issues involved in making schools the center of communities could be coordinated with L.A. city departments.

As for the 26 other municipalities now governed by L.A. Unified, offer them a series of options. They could create charter school districts or an independent school system. They could join with small adjacent districts, and/or their children could be permitted to attend the new L.A. Unified's schools.

Creating a new L.A. Unified will be difficult; significant challenges exist in crafting an effective system for the other cities, and legislation and a vote of the people may be required.

But we must seize this moment when all eyes are focused on a desperate need for education transformation. We all must face this "head-on" in order to maintain Los Angeles as a great global city.

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