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Individual Los Angeles schools gain new autonomy

Under a union pact with L.A. Unified that still needs ratification, charters lose some of their competitive edge.

November 29, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • School Supt. John Deasy earlier this month.
School Supt. John Deasy earlier this month. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers union have agreed to a new pact granting local schools more autonomy over hiring, curriculum and work conditions and virtually ending a 2-year-old policy that allowed charter operators and others to take over low-performing and new campuses.

The agreement, tentative until union members vote on it, doesn't resolve key contract disputes, including whether teacher evaluations should include students' standardized test scores, a provision L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy is seeking. And teachers will continue to work under the terms of the larger labor contract that expired July 1.

But the agreement, negotiated over the last couple of months, does provide for significant changes at local campuses that were championed for years by teachers union leaders. Schools would be able to choose their own teaching materials, schedules and campus rules. They could hire teachers and other staff of their choice. If they wanted to diverge from policies of L.A. Unified, officials could not say no, provided that all laws and legal requirements are honored.

But this local control also would limit union authority. If staffers at a school wanted to void portions of the thick union contract, United Teachers Los Angeles could not stop them.

"I think of this very much as unleashing the power of the professional," Deasy said during a school board meeting. Teams of teachers, he said, are "uniquely qualified" to drive improvement at schools "better than the system writ large."

Under the plan, Deasy said, all district schools could have the same freedoms as independently operated charter schools, which are publicly funded and mostly nonunion. L.A. Unified has more charters than any other school district in the country, enrolling more than 10% of its students in them.

"These reforms thrive in an environment … free from constraints," Deasy said.

"This agreement is a necessary corrective," said United Teachers President Warren Fletcher. "There has been a lot of focus on out-of-district resources and answers. This is the beginning of moving back to some semblance of balance."

Under a policy known as Public School Choice and approved by the Board of Education in 2009, charter schools and other outside organizations were given the chance to compete with groups of district teachers and administrators to gain control of the lowest-achieving schools and new campuses. The initiative had attracted nationwide attention, and charter schools did especially well at winning campuses in the most recent round.

But under the new deal, charter schools mostly will lose that opportunity. District schools would essentially be off limits for at least three years.

"It's disappointing on many levels," said Allison Bajracharya, a managing director for the California Charter Schools Assn. "We embraced Public School Choice as a reform initiative that could systemically change academic outcomes for students in Los Angeles. And one of the reasons it has been effective to date is because of the competition that came from these external operators."

The effort was originally envisioned by former school board member Yolie Flores as a way to make new campuses available to growing charter school organizations that she considered worthy of support. Obtaining school space has been among the greatest challenges for charters.

Flores was unavailable for comment Tuesday. She now heads a local school reform group.

The teachers union has objected to turning over campuses to charters and nonprofit organizations. Prevailing on that front is a huge win for the newly elected Fletcher. But local control, for much of the union leadership, never meant diminishing the union's own authority to maintain provisions of a hard-earned contract that they've considered sacrosanct. They said they're willing to give it a try.

That's a concession that Deasy hopes to capitalize on as he pushes for changes in arenas where he and the union leadership remain at odds.

The agreement must be ratified by teachers; results are expected by Dec. 12.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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