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L.A. Unified's chance for change

The L.A. Unified board's vote on letting others bid to operate 50 new schools is an opportunity to break with the past.

August 24, 2009

The Los Angeles Unified school board has the opportunity Tuesday to usher in a transformative era, shedding the district's traditional role as a monolithic operator of schools and instead becoming a clearinghouse for creative educational models run by a variety of groups.

After several weeks of delay and lobbying, a resolution by board Vice President Yolie Flores Aguilar is slated for a vote. It would give outside organizations such as charter operators, unions, the mayor's office and community groups the opportunity to submit proposals for running the 50 or so new schools expected to open over the next few years. Flores Aguilar has improved her initiative in some key ways, including an expansion that also opens up the district's lowest-performing schools to outside supervision. The resolution enjoys the strong support of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has championed it despite the reservations of his labor allies. Now it deserves a ringing endorsement from the board.

If only things were ever simple in L.A. Unified. Along with the resolution, the board will consider a series of amendments by board members Steve Zimmer and Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte that contain a number of poison pills. Trustees who share a vision of engaging parents and bringing innovative educational plans to local schools should see through these potential spoilers and reject most of the amendments.

Under Flores Aguilar's proposal, outside groups -- as well as district staff -- would have to meet stiff criteria for running schools. For example, students from within a school's attendance boundaries must be given preferential treatment on enrollment, which also must reflect the demographics of the area. In other words, school operators wouldn't be able to cherry-pick the most teachable kids. The same would be true for groups that want to run the district's "failing" campuses, schools that have not met their improvement goals under the No Child Left Behind Act for three or more years.

With about 200 schools in this category -- about a third of all the schools in L.A. Unified -- the district theoretically could be swamped by applications. That would cause serious logistical problems if the program isn't managed prudently. Fortunately, Flores Aguilar has written safeguards into her resolution, including a requirement that the superintendent set priorities on which campuses are most in need of reform. In any case, few charter operators have the capacity and willingness to take over failing schools. If anything, reform will come too slowly for many of those schools, not too quickly.

Flores added one weakening element as a sop to unions, forcing outside operators to hire the district's "classified" workers (food services, repairmen and other support staff) unless they can show that private providers could perform better or cheaper services. That will complicate matters for managers, though it might force the district to improve its support operations.

None of this will do any good if the entire initiative is undermined by a load of troubling proposals put forth by Zimmer and LaMotte. These include vague provisions, apparently intended to appease the teachers union, mandating that outside operators "collaborate with" the district and unions to run the schools, possibly under existing contracts. Exactly who is running the schools under this scenario? That's left unclear. What's needed for these schools is more clarity and accountability, not less. Further, the district cannot expect operators to succeed if it ties them down to the same rigid and financially unsustainable teachers contract that is failing for schools throughout L.A. Unified.

The amendments also decree that no group can take over a school without the majority approval of the parents, bargaining units and, in the case of high schools, the students. That's a certain killer for almost any change in school management. And since when do we hand power over policy decisions to teens, whose top priority tends to be keeping school uniforms off campus? Loopy appeals to universal collaboration are not going to bring about higher standards at schools where almost none of the students are proficient in math or English; what they need are detailed plans for intelligent teaching, enhanced counseling, safe transportation to and from campus and programs before and after school.

Tuesday offers a moment for the board to make a bold and visionary decision to break free of outdated molds. We hope for the sake of its students that it does.

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