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Paying for change

L.A. Unified can't, or won't, reform fast enough, so local education leaders are going it alone.

January 18, 2008

Billionaire Eli Broad's latest philanthropic act goes beyond bringing 17 new high-achieving charter schools to Los Angeles -- as though that weren't enough. It signals to the Los Angeles Unified School District that local education leaders have changed their thinking about the floundering public schools. They're tired of saying that the time for change is now. Instead, they're saying the time for change has passed. Having run out of hope for swift reform within L.A. Unified, they'll make it happen without L.A. Unified.

Broad's recent $23.3-million boost for charter schools brings his overall investment in local charters to about $60 million. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pulled in $50 million from South Bay real estate developer Richard Lundquist and his wife, Melanie, to help with the cluster of district schools that his community partnership will operate. Steve Barr, who tried to get the district to adopt the successful tenets of his Green Dot charters, has shifted to a strategy of using petitions to take charge of failing high schools. He's helped by large grants from Broad and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Private money likes innovation. One of the more promising programs at L.A. Unified, the Belmont Pilot Schools that operate like quasi-charters, attracted a $250,000 grant from the Ahmanson Foundation. If Supt. David L. Brewer polishes his improvement plan for 34 of the most troubled middle and high schools, it also would be worthy of outside support.

But L.A. Unified's efforts have been so small, and so slow to get going, that the big money has largely been betting elsewhere. Years of ineffective leadership by the school board stymied innovations. The board then fended off Villaraigosa's effort to govern the schools and hasten the pace of reform. The new, mayor-backed board majority has not yet been the force for reform the district so badly needs. The pace continues to plod.

The union role in this cannot be ignored. Green Dot earlier negotiated with the district on a plan to operate Locke High School as an L.A. Unified charter. Talks fell apart when United Teachers Los Angeles was unwilling to liberalize its work and tenure rules. So, with the support of a teachers' petition, Green Dot simply took over the school, and now the union loses those positions altogether.

With Broad's new cadre of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) and Aspire Public Schools, the number of charters in the district approaches 150. The message: Impassioned teachers and education leaders will not let students be held hostage to L.A. Unified's inertia or the union's reactionary attitudes toward reform.

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