Saturday, August 18, 2007

UNION'S 'BIG IDEA' FOR LAUSD: Proposed charter-like model would give schools more control

by Naush Boghossian, Staff Writer LA Daily News

August 18, 2007 - Los Angeles Unified's teachers union stepped into district-reform efforts this week, proposing a charter-like model that would give campuses greater control over budgets, hiring and curriculum.

If it gains support, the United Teachers Los Angeles model would become the only formally approved alternative to the increasingly popular charter-school movement, which has drawn interest from more than a dozen San Fernando Valley schools.

Under the union's proposal, schools would receive at least 95 percent of funding from the district but would also get full control over expenditures, hiring, curriculum, class schedules and professional development.

Unlike charter schools, however, teachers would be bound by the UTLA contract, providing protections for teachers but also making it difficult to remove ineffective workers.

"What we're trying to accomplish is to give schools the same kind of autonomies, or as close to those autonomies, that charter schools get," said UTLA President A.J. Duffy, who's been pushing for the program for years.

"Potentially, what we've done was to combine ideas that we have with ideas we've seen developed at charter schools and give them to schools that have the capacity to do it."

The union submitted its plan to the district's innovation division Wednesday, calling for Woodland Hills Academy (formerly Parkman Middle School) to be the first to roll out the model.

The high-performing school, frustrated by a bureaucracy that hampered its finances and led to students defecting to nearby charter schools, filed to become a charter school in 2005.

Concerned that it could spark a wave of similar conversions, the district offered charter-like freedoms to keep the school in the system. But after a successful year, the school staff still decided to reapply to become a charter in order to have greater access to funds.

For Duffy, who's running for re-election in February, the key to winning broad support for reform is local control, and he said he is determined to make Woodland Hills Academy the pilot school for his school-based management plan.

"One of the things charters have shown us is that the bureaucracy is the greatest bulwark for the status quo and we have to break the status quo. The status quo doesn't work," he said.

"It's going to give more life to teaching as a profession and this model is one of the answers to create a quality education program for students."

Woodland Hills Academy teacher Colleen Schwab said the school already has implemented many of the union's proposals.

"We believe it would bring in greater parent involvement and it gives a local school-based management council the ability to decide what would work for their school," Schwab said.

"We'd like the support of the district and we think it would be a good blueprint that would be effective for schools not only throughout the Valley but throughout the district."

Caprice Young, head of the state's Charter Schools Association, said she strongly supports the district experimenting with new forms of decentralized authority.

But Young cautioned that the concept must include accountability. Under state law, if a charter school performs in the bottom 30 percent of public schools, its charter will not be renewed in five years.

"They always talk about charter-like freedoms, but they don't talk about charter-like accountability," Young said. "For the first time in a long time, the district is actually being forced to compete in ways that are actually going to improve student achievement.

"Now, when they face a serious threat ... they're getting real about decentralization."

Karen Littman, director of the district's innovation division, said all of the proposals coming through her department are in progress.

[CORRECTION: Ms. Littman's first name is Kathi.]

"We've started the conversations, but we won't do any initiatives in the innovation division without accountability," she emphasized.

It is unclear whether the model would need approval by the district's board.

Young said she supports any exploration of decentralization and said that if teachers support it - and have a sense they're actively engaged in decision-making - there rarely is a need to fire teachers.

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are publicly funded campuses that operate independently of the district and most state regulations, exercising full control over their resources and electing their own school boards to set policies and budgets.

But Young warned that when schools taste a little freedom, they often want more, and the next natural step after the UTLA model may be the charter movement.

"The biggest likelihood is that once the school-site leadership begins to understand what real freedom looks like, they're going to want real freedom, not fake freedom," Young said.

"And the district is going to have to be ready to provide that in exchange for high student achievement."

But Duffy said most teachers do not favor charters.

"Teachers turn to charters because they can't get the system to give them the freedoms they want. Once we start giving them the freedoms, then this is the kind of thing they want," Duffy said.

Young would not say which schools have contacted her to discuss becoming charters, but she said several in the Valley are feeling competitive pressures.

Taft High School Principal Sharon Thomas said her teachers have been weighing whether to become a charter because they're frustrated with dwindling funding.

The teaching staff at the Woodland Hills school voted on the issue, but fewer than 50 percent supported the idea.

Thomas said some teachers are scared to leave the traditional public school system, but that another meeting has been set to discuss options - including, possibly, the union's proposal.

As the district works to end busing, Taft also is facing the loss of students over the next several years - and the Title I federal funding that comes with them.

"We don't have money and budgets like we used to, so teachers are having to do with less and less money for their programs," Thomas said.

"We're looking at the possibility of it and how it would help the school and students. Basically, we're here to help the students and get them the best opportunities for learning."

School board member Julie Korenstein, who has been opposed to charters, said she's seen the district attempt decentralization in the past.

She said it's important to see how any plans are structured, particularly on training school-site leaders to handle greater autonomy.

But she said she's always been interested in finding ways for schools and communities to make local decisions.

"I'd like to find the balance between centralization and local control," said Korenstein, who said she had not yet seen the union's plan.

"Neither one is bad and (both have) good points."

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