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Reforming L.A.'s schools

L.A. Unified's board took a major step forward in passing an initiative to open up the operation of new schools to competitive bidding.

August 27, 2009

It's not a total coincidence that, on the day after the Los Angeles Unified school board passed the first major reform to turn around its lowest-performing campuses, the Obama administration announced that it would target billions of federal dollars to districts that reconfigured their persistently failing schools.

From the start, board Vice President Yolie Flores Aguilar said her reform initiative was inspired by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's "Race to the Top" campaign, which will funnel stimulus money to troubled schools that commit to transforming their operations. Passed by the board Tuesday, Flores Aguilar's resolution allows district and outside groups to submit competing proposals for operating 50 new schools, as well as up to 200 schools that have failed to meet federal improvement goals for several years.

The signs of a new era were visible at L.A. Unified headquarters even before the vote. Thousands of parents representing both sides crowded into the building and filled the streets outside, a level of involvement too rarely seen in debates over local schools. And though the usual amount of posturing took place on the dais, there was a greater openness among board members about the role of labor unions in reform attempts.

In the past, many board members quietly but obviously took their cues from unions, casting votes that were clearly aimed at appeasing labor but disguising them as somehow contributing to education. But with initiatives like Flores Aguilar's, and with reformers like Duncan looking to charter schools as a vibrant educational model and pushing to link teacher pay to performance, the traditional power of labor unions is undergoing a severe test. Ideally, unions will survive to become progressive partners, helping to shape reform while seeking good pay and working conditions for their members. Labor then could re-establish itself as a constructive force in local schools rather than as an obstacle to thoughtful progress, but only if the board is willing to set and hold limits on union power.

The new willingness to establish those limits was made possible by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's formidable fundraising prowess and his decision to back school board candidates who share his views. The mayor lent clout and public visibility to Flores Aguilar's resolution, and both he and Flores Aguilar were vilified at Tuesday's meeting by opponents, who threatened recall and accused the mayor of serving his own political interests. That's barely even a criticism: If the mayor burnishes his image by improving schools, we're all for it.

Of actual concern are two amendments that weaken the resolution to an extent that will remain unclear until the first school operators are chosen. Trustee Steve Zimmer pushed through a provision that requires advisory votes on any new operator by parents, union members and, in the case of high schools, students. Though that's a big improvement over his failed attempt to make those votes binding, it practically ensures that each school decision will involve a pitched popularity contest over issues peripheral to educational quality. It also tends to favor a continuation of the status quo because existing teachers and staff have the most access to parents and students.

In an attempt to soften union resistance to her resolution, Flores Aguilar added an amendment that requires new operators to retain the district's cafeteria, maintenance and other service workers, at least for an unspecified period of time. One hallmark of good charter managers is their ability to pour more money into the classroom by outsourcing such work.

At this point, the initiative's success depends on Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who will report back to the board with specific regulations and who will make the first rounds of recommendations on who should run various schools. We hope he will return with a set of rules designed to accomplish one thing: the selection of school operators with the very best educational plans for L.A.'s students.

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