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As officials bicker, L.A. students lose

L.A. Unified is missing out on a possible $40-million grant that could have cut dropout rates and boosted achievement.

November 02, 2012
  • Four former LAUSD dropouts are seen at a news conference held by LAUSD Superintendent Dr. John Deasy, board members and staff at Hollywood High school, to announce the fifth annual Student Recovery Day.
Four former LAUSD dropouts are seen at a news conference held by LAUSD Superintendent… (Los Angeles Times )

The teachers union objected to how much an academic intervention program for teenagers might cost. The Obama administration insisted that grant approval be tied to whether teachers are evaluated in part based on their students' test scores. Both parties refused to compromise. And as a result of stubborn officials clinging to their ideological positions, the students of the Los Angeles Unified School District are probably out of the running for a $40-million grant that could have reduced dropout rates and boosted achievement.

After California failed in 2010 to secure a $700-million Race to the Top grant — a one-time infusion of federal education funding — L.A. Unified and other districts in the state were given an opportunity to apply directly for much smaller sums. One catch: Grant applications must include a promise to tie teachers' performance ratings to their students' scores on standardized tests. To ensure that this happens, unions must sign the applications. But such evaluation policies have been anathema to union officials, who argue, with some validity, that the tests are a limited and sometimes misleading measure of student performance.

L.A. Unified's application for $10 million a year over four years called for intensive academic help for low-performing students to reverse the trend of dropouts in early high school. Leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles refused to sign, citing both the cost and the teacher evaluation provision.

But the union isn't the only one to botch this opportunity. The Obama administration has been inflexible about the role of test scores in teacher evaluations. It's a touchy and complicated issue that's now under court-ordered negotiation in L.A. Unified. The introduction of scores into evaluations must be carried out with care if they're to be accurate and fair. Moreover, the federal government shouldn't be dictating how teachers are evaluated; schools should be held responsible for results, not how they achieve those results.

But both UTLA and Supt. John Deasy could have been more flexible on the cost issue. The district shouldn't lock itself into a long-term program that it might not be able to afford; at the same time, the union should have looked for compromise on costs.

On Thursday, Deasy announced that he'll ask for the application to be considered without UTLA's approval. It's a reasonable request. The Education Department should worry more about helping students than achieving its narrow objectives — and it shouldn't give unions de facto veto power over school districts' aspirations.

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