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Lessons for LAUSD

Today's trying times are reminders of past missteps. But an innovative reform plan, if done right, will help.

November 09, 2009

It's hard to imagine a more trying time for students and teachers at the Los Angeles Unified School District. Even more difficult is determining how much of the current woe was brought on by the district itself and how much reflects the vagaries of demographics, politics and the economy.

Consider the dismal budget year, the large-scale layoffs and the declining population of school-age students, then add to these troubles the students lost to charter schools and the resulting reduction in public school funding from the state. Enrollment in charters doesn't happen in smooth, predictable ways; it's not like an entire class from one school moves to another, with a resulting loss of one teacher position. Instead, it's a few from one school, a few from another, in scattered grades, and suddenly none of those schools can afford all of their teachers. And the students who move to charters aren't usually the most challenging ones to educate; those students tend to remain in the public schools.

That's how the district ended up with situations like the one at Mulholland Middle School, reported on last week by Times staff writer Howard Blume. The Van Nuys school has lost 100 students and 10 teachers. Its teachers and administrators took on heavy new workloads to reduce the number of layoffs. Students feel the pain too, in the form of more restricted course offerings and larger class sizes.

It's not the fault of the overburdened, dedicated teachers or their students -- or L.A. Unified -- that the state budget looks like Swiss cheese, that population shifts have lowered enrollment in most of California's urban districts or that regulations on charter schools create disproportionate hardships for public schools.

But there's also no denying L.A. Unified's heavy hand in creating its troubles, in ways both systemic and specific.

Last year, this page noted that charter school enrollment had grown to 7% of the district's student population and predicted the possibility of a de facto breakup of the district in which the growth of charters would eventually lead to a smaller, more manageable number of schools for the district to run. Since then, the proportion of students at charter schools has climbed again, to about 9%. And that figure will pale in comparison to the number five to 10 years from now if the district's plan to open perhaps 250 schools to outside operators is managed successfully.

The school board deserves credit for approving more charter schools in recent years, but the demand for them wouldn't have been nearly as high if the board and L.A. Unified management had been paying attention to the years-long discontent in the district. Parents complained about unsafe campuses, unqualified teachers and high dropout rates. Employers complained that graduates were so weak in math and reading skills that they couldn't qualify as delivery people or apprentices for skilled construction jobs. Under former Supt. Roy Romer, the district responded with some improvements, mainly in its elementary schools and with the construction of new campuses, but continued to stumble over its own byzantine bureaucracy, board politics and stifling union contract rules.

No wonder there was pent-up demand to leave L.A. Unified when charters began opening their doors in larger numbers. Many of the schools have substantial waiting lists; the percentage of students in charter schools would be far higher today if they had unlimited capacity.

L.A. Unified lost whatever momentum it had when the board hired retired Vice Adm. David L. Brewer in 2006 as its next superintendent, a selection intended to forestall Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa from having a say in the hiring by making the appointment before the new mayor-backed school board members took office. Brewer was not up to the leadership task of overcoming the district's monumental obstacles to reform and controlling the highly political board. The decision to buy out his contract two years later was necessary, but it further eroded public confidence in the district.

Then the board bypassed a crucial opportunity last year to raise money for school operations when it placed a $7-billion construction bond on the November ballot, which was approved by voters. The bloated size of the bond, more than twice what the board had initially considered adequate, had little to do with construction needs and everything to do with polls that showed the bond would win easily. But this wasn't the time for taking the easy political route. The board should have halved the size of the bond, which can be used solely for construction, placing a parcel tax for an equal amount on the ballot to raise funds for textbooks, teachers and educational programs. Now the district is stuck with a bond that far exceeds its construction needs with fewer students to house, while it's short the money to retain adequate staff.

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