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L.A.'s schools -- a new day?

Mayor Villaraigosa calls on the Board of Education to vote for a reform that will allow groups to bid on running new L.A. schools.

July 27, 2009|Antonio R. Villaraigosa | Antonio R. Villaraigosa is the mayor of Los Angeles.

We've all heard the horror stories about crumbling campuses, falling test scores, growing class sizes and decreasing graduation rates. Yet the debate over education reform remains stuck in neutral. School leaders, principals and unions haggle over contracts instead of hashing out lesson plans. We fight yesterday's battles -- over tenure and time sheets -- when today's economy demands real, tangible reform of what goes on in the classroom.

For too long, leaders at every level of government have defended a status quo that serves the interests of adults more than children; that gives bureaucrats a near monopoly over public education; that shuts parents out of the conversation; and that, over and over, fails our kids.

It's time to get past the gatekeepers and stop preserving a system defined by low performance, low standards and low expectations. It's time to embrace new ideas and reclaim concepts such as accountability and competition, and it's time to admit the need for more than one educational choice. Put simply, it's time to put students first.

On Aug. 25, the Los Angeles Board of Education will have the opportunity to take the first real step toward reforming our broken system and transforming our schools. Board member Yolie Flores Aguilar has proposed a measure that would fundamentally change the way we run our schools, giving organizations outside the Los Angeles Unified School District -- charter school groups, teacher collaboratives and others -- the chance to compete to operate new campuses set to open in fall 2010.

Instead of merely handing these campuses over to the district, the school board would require prospective school operators to submit a detailed plan on how they would run the new school. The plans would be judged based on the operator's past record of success, the inclusion of metrics for measuring that success and the educational vision for the new school. The superintendent would evaluate each plan and recommend to the board the operator with the superior plan to run the school.

I urge the board members to pass this motion.

This measure can bring us closer to realizing the goals at the center of our reform efforts: Every child in Los Angeles ought to have access to a high-quality public school in his or her neighborhood.

Angelenos do not have to look far for examples of thriving alternatives to the traditional public school system. Charter groups in L.A. are using the best practices of the private sector in our most important public forum. They're cutting overhead costs and paying teachers better. Their campuses are cleaner and safer, and their students are getting more attention. Parents are required to participate far beyond parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights.

Just look at two examples from the last year alone. Under Green Dot Public Schools' leadership, Locke High School -- once a symbol of failure where just three out of 100 students went to college -- now houses eight small schools focused on a college-prep curriculum. Challenges remain, but a culture of achievement has taken hold.

On the Eastside, the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools has partnered with Cal State L.A. to build a school focused on math, science and technology, equipping students with 21st century skills.

The measure before the school board offers us the chance not simply to tinker at the edges of our school district but to turn our public education system on its head. It offers children the chance to escape the pattern of failure that has long marked so many of our schools.

I recognize that these changes won't come easily. I know that the voices of dissent -- the individuals and institutions that rely on and benefit from the status quo -- will try to drown out the calls for reform. But we cannot place the same old failing school system into brand new buildings and expect different results.

Rather than feel threatened by a new system, district leaders and unions should join the effort, present their own proposals, and take the lead in making these new schools the best in the city.

Flores Aguilar's measure is not designed to shut anyone out but to welcome new approaches and pursue models that are already known to work -- regardless of whether the plan comes from charter organizations, teachers or other reformers.

Passing the board measure represents progress on the broader agenda of shutting down failing schools and reopening them as reform campuses. We must not wait for another report card telling us we did not make the grade. We must work together and take action now.

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