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LAUSD's goal should be better schools

Reform efforts shouldn't be allowed to bog down in bickering over work rules and the like.

November 12, 2009

The Los Angeles Unified School District is trying to make the transition from a centralized bureaucracy that dictates the minutiae of daily education in its schools to a model that confers more power on individual schools and holds them accountable for the results. Yet the central office still seems to have trouble knowing when to let go. Its waffling is the latest obstacle to the district's new initiative to open perhaps 250 schools to outside management, such as charter operators or community organizations.

Groups of teachers would like to submit applications to run some of the schools, but United Teachers Los Angeles is still at odds with district management over what kinds of teacher contracts would prevail at those campuses. The union wants its usual contract, heavy with work rules that govern everything, down to how much schoolyard duty a teacher can perform. The district is sticking to its preference for so-called thin contracts with less restrictive rules.

This argument is a distraction from the real weakness in the 250-school initiative at this point: the lack of accountability for groups that will run these schools. The latest draft of the implementation plan mentions targets and reviews but is still missing details on what those targets will be. They should include specific reductions in truancy and dropout rates, and equally specific improvements in the numbers of elementary students who can read at grade level. Significantly rising test scores also should be part of the formula. The plan should make extremely clear how close an operator -- whether a teachers group, a charter organization or any other applicant -- must get to the targets within a specific amount of time or lose control over the school. The worst outcome would be to hand hundreds of schools to new operators and then allow them to languish because of a lack of rigorous accountability.

There is no time to waste. The letters of intent for the first round of applicants are due next week, and applicants should know what is expected of them.

We agree with the district that more flexible contracts are likelier to bring better results. The existing contract makes it harder for a budget-limited school to offer after-school programming, community services and improved safety. But if teachers groups submit strong proposals, agreeing to enrich the schools' offerings and committing to meet the performance targets, what should matter isn't the heft of their contracts but whether they can produce measurable results.

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