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Next step for schools

It is crucial that the new board set priorities, demand accountability and ensure that children get the great education they deserve.

June 03, 2007

THE LAWSUIT has been dropped, the board is about to morph and almost everyone is impatient for change. So the question of the moment is: What next for L.A.'s schools? Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his new majority of allies on the board have plenty of work ahead. They must revisit lost ambitions and set new priorities for making the schools more transparent, accountable and, above all, effective centers of learning:

Don't forget the audit. For well over a year, the mayor and City Controller Laura Chick have called for Chick's office to conduct an independent financial audit of the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose $11-billion budget is a murky affair to even the most erudite outsiders. The board and former Supt. Roy Romer resisted. The new board and Supt. David L. Brewer should welcome the scrutiny.

The Spider-Man rule. The flavor of the year is "local control" -- allocating more money and decision-making to schools rather than centralizing it at district headquarters. This approach is popular with parents, who want more say, and United Teachers Los Angeles, whose member teachers crave a return to what they see as the more creative and fulfilling old days. But the district has changed; a quarter of LAUSD's roughly 700,000 students move every year. A consistent curriculum and instructional approach minimize the disruption to their education.

There's nothing inherently wrong with empowering campuses, which is the case at many charter schools. But history offers a lesson here: The district didn't centralize power without reason. In the old days, teachers might have enjoyed their creativity, but many students weren't learning how to read or do math.

Uncle Ben's line from "Spider-Man" is as apt for L.A. schools as it was for Peter Parker: With great power comes great responsibility. Charter teachers have more authority because they put their jobs on the line; they can be fired for poor performance and charter schools can be closed for failing to raise test scores. The district should hand more control to schools only with strict accountability.

It's about teaching. Redirecting power, making schools smaller -- these might help, but they shouldn't be confused with real reform, which is about instruction, not structure: fine teachers, strong curriculum (that means keeping LAUSD's highly successful Open Court reading program), excellent textbooks.

The district needs more coherent, accountable teacher training and the authority to fire ineffective teachers and reward star staff. Principals need relief from rigid contract rules that keep them from assigning teachers where needed and asking them to do what it takes to raise achievement. The board and Villaraigosa -- who has longtime UTLA ties -- must push hard against the union's intransigence, insisting on a contract that works best for students.

Learn from charters. Rather than continue to be defensive about charter schools, the new board must invite charters with innovative programs to take over where the district's own schools have failed. Charter schools offer safe, disciplined alternatives to LAUSD's more chaotic campuses, and higher academic ambitions. That's a choice all L.A. families should have.

The outsiders. Villaraigosa and the school board's four newest members -- Yolie Flores Aguilar, Tamar Galatzan, Monica Garcia and Richard Vladovic -- have played valuable roles as high-profile critics of the district's status quo. Once inside the system, the natural temptation will be to turn cheerleader. That would be a mistake.

There must be firm benchmarks in place to measure progress. (See the Spider-Man rule.) Within two years, the dropout rate should fall by at least five percentage points, and the vast majority of middle and high schools should meet their growth targets under the state's testing program. Within that timeline, new charter schools should be flourishing in district-provided facilities in neighborhoods where LAUSD schools have fallen short. The teachers contract should include more realistic work rules, and the student discipline policy should be toughened and fully implemented.

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