Published Online: August 26, 2009

L.A. Board OKs School-Management Plan

The Los Angeles board of education has agreed to open up as many as 250 schools to outside managers in a move meant to jump-start the pace of academic improvement in the nation’s second-largest school district.

In a 6-1 vote that followed a nearly four-hour debate, board members on Tuesday approved a resolution that will allow outside groups—such as charter school operators, community organizations, as well as in-house talent—to compete to operate 50 new schools set to open in the city over the next four years.

The new policy will also invite groups to take on the management task of turning around roughly 200 schools that are chronic underperformers.

The proposal drew fierce opposition from United Teachers Los Angeles, whose top leader called the measure a “giveaway to charter schools,” but garnered strong support from parent and charter school groups, as well as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Thousands of supporters, dressed in blue shirts, and opponents, dressed in red, descended on the district’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters hours before the board vote.

Monica Garcia, the president of the board, said she hoped the measure “will help this district move faster.” She also took a shot at the teachers’ union, saying, “The labor movement in this town cannot sustain itself on reading scores.”

Board member Steven Zimmer voted for the measure despite reservations about the resolution and the negative effect he said it could have on unionized employees, parents, and students. “The results of the [state standardized exams] released last week highlighted that the achievement gap still exists,” he said, “and that gap should shame us.”

Yolie Flores Aguilar, the main author of the resolution and the vice president of the school board, said she was compelled to push for a “new way” after seeing a report from researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. It showed that out of every 100 students enrolled in high schools in her district in southeast Los Angeles, as few as 28, and no more than 36, actually graduated. Third grade students’ reading scores also alarmed her: Less than 30 percent read at grade level.

“I didn’t know whether to scream or to cry,” said Ms. Flores Aguilar. “My frustration is at the casualness of how people have reacted to the failure of so many of our schools. When I look at the data indicators, I think this is a 911 emergency. I don’t understand why we aren’t stepping it up.”

Parent-Group Support

The new policy calls specifically for inviting school planning teams, charter-management organizations, the teachers’ union, local community organizations, and other groups to make pitches for operating the new and low-performing schools. Ms. Flores Aguilar said she would not be in favor of for-profit education groups competing to manage schools, unless robust community support was behind the idea.

Exactly how the management pitches will be judged and how the competitive process will unfold is now in the hands of Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines and his administrative team. They have 60 days to create a plan for how the process will work. Ultimately, Mr. Cortines will review each proposal and make recommendations to the school board, which will have to sign off on each manager selected by Mr. Cortines.

Mr. Cortines, who pushed for Ms. Flores Aguilar to target low-achieving schools as well as new schools, said even if the board had not approved the measure, he would have pursued the strategy administratively.

“We must look at every single one of these schools individually and come up with a prescriptive plan for each of them,” said Mr. Cortines, who believes administrators, school-level leaders, and teachers can be strong competitors for managing the targeted schools. “Too much of the hype has been around giving schools away, and I don’t give schools away.”

A number of parent groups pushed hard for the resolution’s adoption, and one of them, the Parent Revolution, actively campaigned in the districts of two board members who had not revealed ahead of time how they would vote.

Ben Austin, the executive director of the Parent Revolution, a group closely affiliated with some Los Angeles charter-management organizations, including Green Dot Public Schools, said the district’s $20 billion school construction program can’t be called a success when many of the new schools that opened in recent years have sunk to the bottom academically.

“They literally begin to fail under federal law the day after the ribbon-cutting ceremony,” said Mr. Austin, referring to the No Child Left Behind Act. “This resolution would transform a school construction program into an engine of reform.”

Mr. Austin said in an interview last week that his group would have liked the resolution to go even further by including a provision that would empower parents to trigger the process for seeking a new operator of a district school that is failing.

“We’ve got to stop cutting these transactional deals that try to make everyone happy, because they don’t accomplish any real reform,” he said. “The only people that need to be happy are the parents, and invariably, what’s good for parents and children is also good for teachers.”

Union Busting?

A.J. Duffy, the president of the 48,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, said the resolution is designed to give district schools away to charter groups and to Mayor Villaraigosa, whose Partnership for Los Angeles Schools now runs 10 low-achieving schools in the district. He also called the measure a blatant attempt to “break the union.”

“We are not opposed to outside interests coming in, but we want those outside interests to adhere to the bargaining agreement that already exists,” Mr. Duffy said. While he acknowledged that the union, or groups of teachers, could compete to operate the schools, Mr. Duffy had pledged to sue the district if the measure passed. He contended that it would violate the rules that govern the school-construction-bond program.

Mr. Cortines said autonomy for the schools’ new managers will be essential for their success, but he acknowledged that getting around the teachers’ union contract “would be problematic.” Still, he said, he would force the union’s hand if necessary to give him the more flexible “thin contracts” for the schools slated for new management.

Ms. Flores Aguilar, meanwhile, said if the resolution has the effect of weakening UTLA, “that would be a good thing.”

“I think our teachers’ union has been the biggest barrier and impediment to reform,” she said. “I just want a progressive teachers’ union.”

Vol. 29, Issue 02

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