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L.A. Coalition Unveils Plan for Restructuring Schools

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As the leaders of the United Teachers of Los Angeles laid the groundwork for a possible strike, a citywide coalition last week released a draft plan for restructuring the troubled school district.

The report by the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, known as LEARN, calls for schools to become "semi-autonomous'' sites responsible for their own budgets, staff selection, and teaching methods.

"Past efforts to control schools by contract, court decree, regulation, and financial incentives have made schools more responsive to outside authorities than to the students and parents whom they serve,'' it asserts.

The coalition recommends that the district create a system that allows parents to send their children to the school of their choice, which it says would create a strong incentive for schools to develop programs to attract students.

The draft report, which was approved by LEARN's 15-member working group, must now be endorsed by the organization's 625 trustees before it is formally presented to the board of education later this year. It contains recommendations on governance, accountability and assessment, facilities, social services, parent involvement, professional development, and workforce preparation that were drawn up by task forces.

Strike Vote Set

The Los Angeles Unified School District's continuing budget crisis, which spurred the formation of LEARN, raises questions about whether the proposals can be implemented, officials from the teachers' union and the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles said.

"That's a big question on everyone's mind. Reform always costs money,'' said Catherine M. Carey, the director of communications for the U.T.L.A. "Many of the ideas are wonderful and innovative. Our membership has been wanting these kinds of changes for a long time.''

The union's immediate concern is fending off proposed salary cuts that would trim teachers' pay by 9 percent this year, on top of 3 percent reductions from last year that will not be repaid this year.

Although negotiations over the proposed cuts are continuing, Ms. Carey said, the union's top governing bodies voted last week to recommend that members authorize the board of directors to call a strike "if and when it's necessary.'' Teachers were scheduled to vote on the matter this week.

The school board has adopted a final budget of $3.9 billion that contains the salary reductions, which are less than the 17.5 percent cuts that had originally been proposed.

Mary Chambers, LEARN's executive vice president, said cost estimates for its recommendations, and suggestions for implementing the reforms, will be prepared after the final plan is released.

"This is intended to overhaul an entire system,'' she said. "It is not a pilot, not one school.''

Many of the ideas involve doing things differently, she noted, which may not involve new costs. Others, such as providing intensive training to educators and developing new assessments, would be expensive.

Principals as Leaders

Principals applaud the plan for making them the school leaders and giving them the tools to be held accountable, said Eli Brent, the president of the administrators' union. "Anything that makes this school system work, we want,'' he said. "If this helps, we'll buy it.''

In order for teachers, principals, and members of a school's community to take responsibility for education, the plan says, they must be given the authority to make decisions on their budgets, staffs, and programs.

"Existing cumbersome systems for managing staff should be made faster and more flexible,'' the report says, adding that the details for new procedures should be developed by management-staff teams and approved by the board.

Schools should be given per-pupil funding based on the grades served and the number and needs of their students, the report recommends.

Principals would be the "decision leaders'' of each school, working closely with school-site teams that would develop plans for the school keyed to districtwide standards.

Principals should be hired by the central administration after consultation with the school community, the report says, and should be placed on three-year contracts, subject to removal earlier for "just cause.''

The plan does not include an earlier proposal to create a process by which principals could be recalled. (See Education Week, May 27, 1992.)

Teachers should be involved in developing a system of "incentives and interventions,'' the report recommends. Strong performance could be rewarded by advancement on a districtwide career ladder, while weak teachers could receive assistance from their peers or be transferred.

The report also recommends that high schools conduct annual surveys to determine how satisfied teachers, other staff members, parents, and students are with a school's progress.

Schools, principals, or teachers who were experiencing difficulty would first be offered assistance and support, then mediation by an impartial person or team. If those steps failed, the principal or teacher in question would be transferred.

The intervention process could be initiated by "any member of a school community,'' the report says, or by district administrators.

To help educators prepare for their new roles, the report calls for the establishment of a training academy to provide professional-development opportunities.

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