By Maria Elena Durazo and Steve Zimmer | Opinion From the Los Angeles Times
June 9, 2009 - Supt. Ramon C. Cortines is determined to decentralize the cumbersome Los Angeles Unified School District, and that's a laudable goal. But his recent decision to allow individual schools to decide how to spend federal stimulus funds has paved the way for serious inequities.
Some schools are using the funds to maintain small class sizes, while others have opted to spend the money in other ways. That means that one school could have a student-teacher ratio of 19 to 1 in the primary grades, but a neighboring school could have a ratio of 24 to 1. A child's class size shouldn't depend on which district school he attends.
Class size is one of the most important factors in student achievement. It was no coincidence that test scores in the LAUSD rose substantially in the wake of a mandate from Sacramento to reduce class size to no more than 20 students in the primary grades. Currently, the school district has made a commitment to increased "personalization" in secondary schools by reducing the size of schools.
But what good will a small school do if classrooms have more than 40 students?
Today's school board meeting is the last time that body will have a meaningful opportunity to prevent the layoffs of more than 2,000 teachers. If the teachers are cut, we will see devastating increases in class size across the district. The board, in conjunction with the superintendent and United Teachers Los Angeles, must act to prevent that.
The superintendent needs to take the first step, by pulling back from his decision to allow schools a free hand in spending stimulus funds. He could do this by allowing schools to state their preferences about how to spend stimulus money, without giving them full control. Students and their families aren't nearly as interested in school decentralization as they are in keeping treasured teachers at their schools.
The school board needs to authorize using more of the district's federal stimulus funds this year than it has previously favored. The money was intended to save jobs and stabilize schools now. But the superintendent and board have held to the idea that they should spend only 50% of the funds this year. Maintaining class size would probably require using about 65% to 70% of the stabilization funds this year. It would be nice to have a cushion, but holding on tightly to the money for another year would defeat the immediate good the stimulus was designed to bring our children.
UTLA must also put kids first. In these grim economic times, that is likely to require teachers to make financial sacrifices, such as forgoing pay hikes they are due (which could save the district about $45 million) or agreeing to unpaid furloughs. In exchange for these concessions, the board should commit to maintaining class size and staffing levels, perhaps with an assurance that teachers will be paid back if and when we return to better financial times.
Asking members to sacrifice is distasteful to any union leader, but this is an extraordinary moment, and it calls for a different kind of leadership. No one wants to ask teachers, who are already underpaid for the public service they perform, to take a hit. But that's the only thing that will save the jobs of the youngest teachers and maintain cohesion at schools. UTLA has a rare chance to stand with parents and community leaders and show its further commitment to kids and schools. Working together to restore class size could lay the foundation for a powerful coalition built on mutual goodwill.
The LAUSD's Big Three -- Cortines, the board and UTLA -- can put no other goal ahead of students. Kids aren't responsible for the current economic crisis, and they shouldn't be its victims.
Maria Elena Durazo is executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. Steve Zimmer is a board member-elect of the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education.