Tuesday, March 30, 2010

WHEN LESS MEANS MORE FOR L.A. UNIFIED: Shortening the school year by a week was L.A. Unified's best choice among several bad options.

L.A, Times Editorial

March 31, 2010 | We never thought we'd praise a shortened school year -- at least not since we got out of school ourselves. But the agreement reached over the weekend by Los Angeles school administrators and union leaders to trim the school calendar by about a week this year and next was the best choice from a range of terrible options.

Not that it's something to cheer about. The quantity of instructional time, not just the quality, is an important factor in student achievement. But L.A. Unified is running out of acceptable ways to cut costs. The new agreement allows it to retain close to 2,000 teachers as well as many counselors, nurses and librarians who were slated for layoffs. Better to have five fewer days of instruction than weeks of classrooms so crowded that no one can keep track of students, or teachers so overworked that they refrain from assigning homework because they won't have time to grade it. Better for staff to give up some pay, as financially painful as that will be, than to have no counselors to guide students toward college. The unions' members should approve the measure.

The shortened school year is just one of many ideas proposed by Supt. Ramon C. Cortines in his tireless scramble to find additional money. We haven't backed all of them, such as the one this month forcing thousands of students who attend schools outside the district to return to L.A. Unified schools, disrupting their education. Nor do we endorse his request that Congress write funding for teacher positions into new federal jobs legislation. Schools received significant new money from the stimulus package last year that was supposed to last them for two years.

Last summer, though, Cortines proposed an innovative way for L.A. Unified to earn its way to more funding. He asked the U.S. Department of Education to let the district apply for a grant, separate from California's application, under the federal Race to the Top program that awards money to states that commit to major new reforms.

Cortines never received a reply, but his request has merit. L.A. Unified has five times as many students as the entire state of Delaware, which on Tuesday became one of two states to win Race to the Top funding in the first round. L.A. schools serve the largely poor and minority students the federal program was created to help. Though imperfectly handled so far, the district's Public School Choice initiative holds promise for turning around low-performing schools by changing their management. And it's a better idea than most of what was in California's Race to the Top application. Before launching future rounds of funding, Education Secretary Arne Duncan should allow the nation's biggest districts to show that they can compete when it comes to improving their schools.

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