Sunday, December 04, 2011

LAUSD'S PROMISE OF SCHOOL FREEDOM IS PROGRESS, BUT NO PANACEA: Educators at campuses that would get more autonomy under a district-union deal must remember that what made upstart charters work is not fewer rules but more attention to student needs.

Sandy Banks

By Sandy Banks. LA Times |


December 3, 2011 :: There is good news and not-so-good news in the agreement announced this week between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the union representing district teachers.

The pact, if it's ratified by United Teachers Los Angeles members, will give district campuses unprecedented freedom, allowing them to operate like charter schools, with the flexibility to choose teachers and tailor teaching unbound from district and union rules.

But the deal threatens to derail a growing local charter movement that has offered salvation to thousands of families desperate for alternatives to giant campuses, crowded classrooms, burned-out teachers and thugged-out students.

The pact wipes out the district's two-year-old Public School Choice program, which allowed charters to bid for control of new campuses and failing schools, and helped make Los Angeles the center of a movement toward alternative schools.

Los Angeles has more charters than any system in the country; one in five LAUSD campuses is a publicly funded, privately run charter school.

But charters siphon money from the district — education funds follow students enrolled in charter schools — and dilute the power of UTLA because charter staffs tend to be non-union.

LAUSD Supt. John Deasy says that's not what's behind this deal. "But relying on charters alone as a strategy for transformation is not sustainable," he said.

The new agreement will give the average public school as much autonomy as the charters, he said. "Charters have said 'learn from us' and we did," he said.

The plan is by no means a done deal. It has to be approved by union teachers, who would gain more authority over how schools run, but lose seniority protections that guarantee placement.

That trade-off might be a stumbling block. If past is prologue, many teachers may not be eager or prepared to manage the responsibility of revamping a school.

But competition from charters has pushed a new generation of teachers to act. In the two years since Public School Choice began, dozens of teacher-led reform groups have developed plans and won the right to run their local schools.

It's also not clear where parents will fit in. Many parents chose charters for reasons beyond test scores: safety, personal attention, small classes with possibilities for enrichment or intervention.

"LAUSD has some exceptional schools, and we have a whole lot of schools that have not worked well for a very long time," said school board President Monica Garcia.

"For too long, parents have been marginalized, forced into looking for charters, other districts, any way out."

Now, thanks to the largest school construction program in the nation — 100 new schools in 10 years — education in Los Angeles is awash in opportunity.

The district has pilot schools and magnet schools, charter schools and partner schools, private innovators and public failures.

And parents so confused and overwhelmed by it all that when given a chance to weigh in on who should run their campuses, only 1% of them turned out to vote in the advisory process.

Deasy said this new local control plan will make cooperation among the district, its parents and teachers easier and more fulfilling.

"The district and the union have come to a point where we say there should be no handcuffs, nothing that should block a school from undertaking the reforms it needs," he said. "Any school can write a plan ….. And neither UTLA or LAUSD can deny them anything."

As long as student achievement rises, the campus will keep the right to control its destiny.

Deasy said he's received calls from educators across the country this week, applauding the agreement as an unprecedented move toward public school freedom.

"It's absolutely historic," he said. But there are still kinks.

Key to making the process work is allowing school leaders to handpick teachers who support their vision. That's a big change in a district where seniority has dictated who gets what teachers.

Even Garcia wonders what will happen if the district winds up with a pool of teachers with contracts, but no school that wants them.

"We've upped the bar for what we want," she said. "We're taking a risk."

And she knows making it work will be difficult. That acknowledgment sounds to me like a very good thing.

After all, freedom from rules is no panacea. Some L.A. Unified schools have flourished, handcuffs and all, by dint of hard work, judicious rule-bending and enlightened thinking.

Like Plummer Elementary, where committed teachers and a visionary principal raised the performance of poor, Spanish-speaking students and made the school one of the district's test-score leaders.

And Cleveland High School, where a teacher, a coach and a dean organized a program of mentoring, intervention and encouragement that boosted the achievement of black students and became a national model for urban districts.

They have been outliers in a district that has seemed satisfied with mediocrity.

What has made upstart charters work is not fewer rules but more attention to student needs.

Successful charters must constantly reassess and adjust to keep students improving to stay in business, and they've supplied competition that's been good for Los Angeles Unified. It shifted the mind-set in the district.

But only if this pact promotes that kind of introspective evaluation at every Los Angeles Unified school will it be a winning deal — one that has delivered on the original promise of charters as an engine of public school improvement.

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