L.A. Decree Would Equalize Resources Among All Schools
By Peter Schmidt
The Los Angeles Unified School District is considering an agreement that would dramatically redistribute resources and experienced teachers within the district to settle a five-year-old lawsuit by black and Hispanic groups.
The district's board of education last month gave preliminary approval to the proposed consent decree, which calls on the board to equalize resources in schools districtwide.
If approved, the decree would affect both where and how district funds were spent. It would give individual schools spending limits, while allowing them broad discretion over the expenditure of the funds they were allocated.
The decree apparently would be the first such legal settlement addressing school-to-school spending disparities within a single district, said Lawrence O. Picus, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California and a senior research fellow at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.
Most school-finance-equity decisions handed down by courts have targeted disparities in spending among entire districts within a state, Mr. Picus noted. "Courts typically assume there aren't disparities within districts," he said.
Leaders of minority-advocacy groups in Los Angeles said the agreement would alleviate the stark inequities in the funding and quality of district schools that they alleged in their 1986 suit.
But the school board approved the proposed agreement only in concept, and some of the provisions are encountering resistance from the United Teachers of Los Angeles.
Union leaders say they object to elements of the consent decree that would transfer more-senior teachers without ensuring that their new schools receive higher levels of district funding to pay their salaries.
Desire To Avoid 'Upheaval'
According to the lawsuit, Rodriguez v. Los Angeles Unified School District, the district's staffing policies have resulted in the concentration of experienced, higher-paid teachers in mostly white neighborhoods, and thus violate the state constitution by depriving minority children and poor children of equal access to educational resources.
The suit, filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other local and national minority-advocacy groups, also asserted that minority students are more likely to be placed in overcrowded schools and to be victims of other inequities.
Richard K. Mason, the district's lawyer in the case, said last week that the school board still disputes the allegations of inequities. He also questioned the plaintiffs' assumption that experienced teachers provide better educational services.
But, Mr. Mason said, the beard is intent on reaching an agreement to avoid prolonging the legal battle.
"The clearest comparison for us would be the experience our community went through in our school- desegregation case---25 years of divisive and expensive litigation, followed by a court order that we now have been observing for over 10 years," he said.
"We are attempting," he continued, "to settle without that kind of social and economic upheaval."
Peter D. Roos, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, reiterated last week his clients' contention that "[t]he evidence reflects that there are disproportionate numbers of inexperienced and under- credentialed teachers in the predominantly black and Hispanic schools."
Even if the consent decree results in "some moderate incursion" on agreements between the district and its bargaining units, "enforcement of civil-rights laws has to take precedence ," said Mr. Roos, a lawyer with the public-interest law firm Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc. In a closed session held late last month, the Los Angeles board moved on a 5-to-2 vote to tentatively accept the consent decree in principle and to direct Superintendent of Schools William R. Anton to hold public hearings on the agreement.
The beard is expected to vote next month on whether to formally approve the plan. If approved by the beard, the proposed decree would be submitted to the state superior court for Los Angeles County. Court hearings on the matter would likely be held in early February.
Use of Average Per-Pupil Cost
As drafted, the decree calls on the district to make changes in its allocation of resources and assignment of teachers by the beginning of the 1997-98 school year.
The plan also would require the district to construct facilities to relieve overcrowding and would establish mechanisms for monitoring compliance with the agreement.
Currently, the district allocates whatever general-fund resources are needed by individual schools for teachers' and administrators' salaries. Thus, a school with mostly experienced, higher-paid teachers receives more funding than a school with mostly inexperienced teachers on the lower end of the pay scale.
The proposed settlement calls for general-fund dollars to be distributed to schools on the basis of average per-pupil spending districtwide, so that enrollment size, rather than teachers' experience, would determine how much funding a school receives.
A school would have broad discretion in determining how general-fund dollars were spent; it could choose, for example, to have fewer, but more senior, teachers, or to stretch its dollars by hiring novices.
The plan would not affect categorical programs or schools with lower teacher-pupil ratios funded by a state minority-education program.
In the interim phase, beginning in the 1992-93 school year, the district would calculate the extent to which schools were above or below the district average in their allocation of general-fund resources and would require schools with above-average expenditures to reduce spending.
Currently, teachers with more seniority have more say than their less experienced colleagues in where they are assigned. The proposed decree would require the district to assign more-experienced teachers to fill vacancies in schools with lower overall levels of teacher experience.
In the final phase, beginning by 1997-98, basic resources would be allocated according to enrollment, although some small schools would receive supplements to help them fill administrative positions.
Union Intervention in Case
Arguing that the proposed consent decree could have a significant impact on existing collective-bargaining agreements with its 30,000 members, the United Teachers of Los Angeles last month was allowed to intervene in the Rodriguez case.
Helen Bernstein, the union's president, said last week that her organization supports the equalization of educational opportunities in the district but opposes the plan's means for bringing it about.
The union opposes the involuntary transfer of teachers to other schools, favoring incentive programs instead, added Jesus E. Quinonez, a lawyer representing the v.7.L.A.
"You are not improving education if you are placing teachers in places that they don't want to be," he said.
Mr. Quinonez also asserted that the proposed agreement is flawed in that it does not address categorical spending, does not require the district to spend additional funds on instructional programs, and does not account for changes in the distribution of teachers and students since the Rodriguez case was researched.
The Associated Administrators of Los Angeles last week also petitioned to intervene in the case, although Eli Brent, the group's president, said his organization had no specific objections to the plan.
Acknowledging concerns raised by union leaders, Mr. Mason, the school district's lawyer, said, "The settlement establishes an end result of equalization, but clearly contemplates a negotiating process with all of our bargaining units to determine how it will be implemented."