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Innovation and the LAUSD

A proposal to let groups bid to run 50 new L.A. schools is just the kind of fresh thinking the district needs.

July 14, 2009

An attention-piquing item on today's agenda for the Los Angeles Unified school board: a resolution to allow the operation of 50 newly built schools over the next four years by assorted groups, inside and outside the district. Charters, organized labor, parent organizations and community associations could submit plans to run the schools, with the district picking from among competing proposals.

To be frank, this idea, advanced by board Vice President Yolie Flores Aguilar, comes with all sorts of pitfalls: In a school district so politicized, there are too many opportunities for choices to be made on the basis of favoritism rather than merit. The district already does a lackluster job of tracking charters; how will it monitor these experimental schools? The proposal also raises worrisome questions about borderline organizations that might campaign to run a school.

We like it anyway.

In fact, Flores Aguilar's proposal is one of the most intriguing ideas to come along in many years. Without creating upheaval at existing schools, it opens up a portion of the district to groups that might reinvent local education. Its fair-minded provisions allow the teachers union, which has long complained about charter schools, to show that a teacher-managed school can do better. The district itself can propose running any of these schools, giving staff incentive to think creatively. And instead of sticking charters with the most rundown facilities, Flores Aguilar would let them share equally in the district's bond-funded construction, as state law decrees.

There has been significant push-back from United Teachers Los Angeles, concerned that charters, which are enormously popular with parents, would have the edge in this competition. Expect pressure today to delay Flores Aguilar's resolution.

That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, and if it happens, we would like to see the time used to develop stipulations that ensure fairness and accountability. There must be objective criteria for judging applicants and assessing their performance. Managers of these schools should have tight deadlines for improvement as well as clear guarantees of freedom to operate with minimal interference. Schools that fall short must not be allowed to stumble along for years; the district needs well-defined procedures and timelines for reclaiming them. Not acceptable, though, would be using a delay to water down the proposal, which is what happened during the postponement of former board member Marlene Canter's resolution to streamline the firing of the worst teachers. Fear -- and even lack of confidence in the district's adeptness -- cannot be used as an excuse to block innovation.

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