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Vote could open 250 L.A. schools to outside operators

Backers of the Board of Education decision tout choice and competition. Foes call the move illegal, illogical and improper.

August 26, 2009|Howard Blume and Jason Song

In a startling acknowledgment that the Los Angeles school system cannot improve enough schools on its own, the city Board of Education approved a plan Tuesday that could turn over 250 campuses -- including 50 new multimillion-dollar facilities -- to charter groups and other outside operators.

The plan, approved on a 6-1 vote, gives Supt. Ramon C. Cortines the power to recommend the best option to run some of the worst-performing schools in the city as well as the newest campuses. Board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte dissented.

The vote occurred after a tense, nearly four-hour debate during which supporters characterized the resolution as a moral imperative. Foes called it illegal, illogical and improper.

The action signals a historic turning point for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has struggled for decades to boost student achievement. District officials and others have said their ability to achieve more than incremental progress is hindered by the powerful teachers union, whose contract makes it nearly impossible to fire ineffective tenured teachers. Union leaders blame a district bureaucracy that they say fails to include teachers in "top-down reforms."

"The premise of the resolution is first and foremost to create choice and competition," said board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who brought the resolution, "and to really force and pressure the district to put forth a better educational plan."

She and other backers said they expected the district to improve its own performance and to also compete to turn around schools. Bidders could apply to manage schools by mid-January.

For the charter school operators, the biggest prize is 50 new schools scheduled to open over the next four years.

"It's absolutely indispensable, of critical importance to us," said Jed Wallace, chief executive of the California Charter Schools Assn. "It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity: 50 new school buildings coming online at the exact same time that a cadre of charter operators has demonstrated that it can generate unprecedented levels of student learning."

Charters are publicly funded but independently operated and free from some regulations governing the traditional administration of schools. They also are not required to be unionized.

Some of them have failed to outperform regular schools, according to some recent research. But backers of the new plan say that only the top-notch charter companies have a realistic shot at operating any of the 250 campuses that could be included, about a fourth of all district schools.

Finding locations for schools has been a paramount problem for charter groups. Synergy Academy in South Los Angeles, for example, occupies rented space in a church 500 feet from where a new L.A. Unified school is being built.

Among those who could take advantage of the board action is Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who could use it to enlarge the 11-school effort run by a nonprofit that he controls. Villaraigosa, who helped elect a majority of the seven-member board, was an active participant Tuesday, speaking before more than 2,000 parents, teachers and others before the vote.

For several board members, particularly those with strong union ties, the debate was heated and often agonizing. Steve Zimmer, for one, sought to require that teachers, other union members and parents approve any school's reform plan through separate majority votes. At high schools students would also vote.

Lacking support from his colleagues, he settled for a watered-down process that includes only advisory ballots.

The final version included a provision that outside groups would likely contract with the school system for such services as cafeteria, custodial, maintenance, security and transportation. Some charter operators regarded this as a huge concession because they typically outsource these services to save money and say they get better attention from contractors than from the district.

But the language protecting these union jobs offers no long-term guarantee. And no union endorsed the resolution.

The protections didn't go far enough, said Bill Lloyd, executive director of Local 99 of Service Employees International. The local represents thousands of the district's lowest-wage workers, many of whom are district parents. "Historically we don't get a square deal because we're not teachers and we're branded as second-class citizens," he said.

Leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles were once again frustrated that their own version of reform -- democratically run school sites with substantial and mandatory teacher input -- played second fiddle. Union President A.J. Duffy threatened legal action to thwart the Flores Aguilar plan.

Duffy chastised board members, especially those most closely allied with the mayor.

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