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The LAUSD opens its doors

The application process for outside operators to take over new or low-performing schools gets high marks for transparency and fairness.

October 11, 2009

Check out the Los Angeles Unified School District's website and you can track its encouraging progress on the new policy allowing charter operators and other outside organizations to submit competing proposals to run certain schools. When the policy was approved in August, district leaders vowed a transparent and objective process, and so far they're making good on that vow, posting updates on the website. Given L.A. Unified's history of broken promises and political motives, we're pleasantly surprised.

The latest outline of the application process was posted this month, and though it's still in draft form, parents and the organizations that hope to operate schools should be pleased. It requires applicants to attend district meetings in the schools' neighborhoods and reach out to parents. It also describes an exacting set of standards each organization must meet. Applicants must give preference to the students in each school's attendance area, so they're not skimming more-proficient students from other neighborhoods. Their applications must cover not only specific plans for curriculum, instructional materials and teacher training, but school culture, discipline and data systems.

Considering the daunting requirements and January deadline for applicants that want to start running schools in 2010, the first round of competing organizations probably will consist of mostly established charter school operators and perhaps United Teachers Los Angeles, which opposed the new policy but has responded to it with the game intention of proposing teacher-run schools. But the program will be rolled out over several years and include perhaps 250 new and underperforming schools, giving community-based groups a chance to design their own proposals in later rounds.

The only objectionable part of the draft process is something Supt. Ramon C. Cortines cannot control. As passed by the school board, the policy requires advisory votes by parents, staff and, in the case of high schools, students. These groups have valuable ideas to voice, but there are real disadvantages to formal votes. If one group disagrees with another, there will be a winning faction and a losing one; that's a bad way for new management to start. Votes also can put pressure on the district to approve an operator that might have done a better marketing job but that offers an inferior educational plan.

The draft needs at least one addition before it should be considered complete: accountability. Placing a failing school under new management doesn't guarantee success. This is a worthy experiment to see whether outside operators can pick up the pace of improvement in L.A.'s public schools. Cortines must include an equally detailed and objective yardstick to measure whether these new operators are succeeding, and if not, take the schools away from them.

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