LAUSD voting on plan to let public have more say
By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Newspaper Group/Daily News
7/14 -- The Los Angeles Unified school board is scheduled to vote today on a bold plan that would transfer the power of deciding how new schools operate from the district to the community.
With some 70 campuses set to open in the next three years, the plan would invite proposals from community members including educators, charter operators and union leaders. Parents and community members would then decide on the proposals, including whether they want a magnet, pilot, charter or other type of school.
"This resolution is an effort to try something new and desperately needed," said LAUSD board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who wrote the plan.
"We've found a way to include those people most involved in determining how we get academic (success)."
Supporters of the controversial plan say it is part of a much-needed reform effort that takes decision-making out of the hands of bureaucrats and special interests and puts it in the hands of parents and the community.
But critics fear it would take on more reform than the district is ready to handle, at a time when the district is struggling to survive financially.
The plan, entitled "Public School Choice: A New Way at LAUSD," is a key shift in the way the district does business, said Ben Austin, who was involved in writing the resolution and is executive director of LAUSD's Parent Union.
"The collective decisions of hundreds of thousands of parents doing right by their own child gets us to a better place than where we are now ... completely captured by bureaucrats and special interests," said Austin, who also works for Green Dot, a charter school operator that runs 17 schools in LAUSD and has pushed for the takeover of several low-performing district schools.
"There are risks associated with change, but a whole lot more risk associated with the status quo."
Union officials, however, worry the plan could unleash a competitive bidding process among private sector school operators that would ultimately lead to the demise of the district.
"What this district and this board is doing, is doing away with their responsibility and giving public schools away to the private sector instead of the district holding bureaucrats' and middle managers' feet to the fire," said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.
"They did not get the help of every union to build schools (only) to give them away to private enterprise."
LAUSD has more than 150 charter schools, the largest number of any district in the nation.
Duffy, who echoed the sentiments of several district employee unions, including Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, said while the idea of giving more power to parents and educators seemed novel, failing to take the steps in a strategic manner could lead to "mass chaos."
"Reform needs to be done in a logical sensible sequential way," Duffy added.
Modeled after similar initiatives in Philadelphia, Oakland and New York City, the Public School Choice resolution is rooted in an idea of turning around failing schools and encouraging healthy competition.
Matt Hill, an aide to LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines, also said the plan mirrors many of the reforms laid out in the school chief's "First 100 days" plan.
"This began as a strategy to replace very large high schools that had very low graduation rates," said Melody Meyer, spokeswoman for the New York City department of education. Since the program launched in 2002, New York has opened 400 new schools, a majority of them failing schools that were reformed and reopened.
"Now, at our new schools, we consistently graduate about 75 percent of our kids in four years," Meyer said.
Districtwide, New York has also seen its overall graduation rate increase from under 60 percent to 66 percent since the start of the new school plan.
But unlike the Los Angeles proposal, New York instituted its plan in phases, starting out with only failing high schools and rolling it out slowly to all new schools.
Also, in New York there is a cap on the number of charter schools that can be opened, and they only have two models for parents to pick from - either a district school or a charter.
LAUSD board member Tamar Galatzan expressed her hesitation to sign off on a resolution that fails to explain the details of such an ambitious plan.
"This resolution taps into a desperate need for reform at L.A. Unified, and I wholeheartedly agree reform is not happening fast enough," Galatzan said.
"I just want to make sure reform isn't messier than the underlying problem. I have a lot of questions about how this process works: Who exactly is the community? ... What criteria will the community use to weigh competing proposals?" Galatzan asked.
The resolution specifically calls for the creation of a new position, to be paid for with foundation funding. Hill said a local organization has pledged to fund this and other reform efforts included in Cortines' plan, but he said he could not yet disclose the name of group.
If approved, district staff would develop the criteria that will be used to evaluate school proposals, with the goal of rolling out the plan by the fall of 2010.
Innovation and the LAUSD
A proposal to let groups bid to run 50 new L.A. schools is just the kind of fresh thinking the district needs.
LA Times Editorial
July 14, 2009 -- An attention-piquing item on today’s agenda for the Los Angeles Unified school board: a resolution to allow the operation of 50 newly built schools over the next four years by assorted groups, inside and outside the district. Charters, organized labor, parent organizations and community associations could submit plans to run the schools, with the district picking from among competing proposals.
To be frank, this idea, advanced by board Vice President Yolie Flores Aguilar, comes with all sorts of pitfalls: In a school district so politicized, there are too many opportunities for choices to be made on the basis of favoritism rather than merit. The district already does a lackluster job of tracking charters; how will it monitor these experimental schools? The proposal also raises worrisome questions about borderline organizations that might campaign to run a school.
We like it anyway.
In fact, Flores Aguilar's proposal is one of the most intriguing ideas to come along in many years. Without creating upheaval at existing schools, it opens up a portion of the district to groups that might reinvent local education. Its fair-minded provisions allow the teachers union, which has long complained about charter schools, to show that a teacher-managed school can do better. The district itself can propose running any of these schools, giving staff incentive to think creatively. And instead of sticking charters with the most rundown facilities, Flores Aguilar would let them share equally in the district's bond-funded construction, as state law decrees.
There has been significant push-back from United Teachers Los Angeles, concerned that charters, which are enormously popular with parents, would have the edge in this competition. Expect pressure today to delay Flores Aguilar's resolution.
That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, and if it happens, we would like to see the time used to develop stipulations that ensure fairness and accountability. There must be objective criteria for judging applicants and assessing their performance. Managers of these schools should have tight deadlines for improvement as well as clear guarantees of freedom to operate with minimal interference. Schools that fall short must not be allowed to stumble along for years; the district needs well-defined procedures and timelines for reclaiming them. Not acceptable, though, would be using a delay to water down the proposal, which is what happened during the postponement of former board member Marlene Canter's resolution to streamline the firing of the worst teachers. Fear -- and even lack of confidence in the district's adeptness -- cannot be used as an excuse to block innovation.