Fueled by Sense of Crisis, Coalition Forges Plan To Rebuild L.A. Schools

By Ann Bradley — May 27, 1992 11 min read
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“A good part of what we’ve been doing,’' he said, “is breaking down those walls.’'

The effort by the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, known as LEARN, is no less ambitious than the 1988 legislation in Illinois that overhauled the governance of the Chicago public schools, its proponents say.

The initiative is fueled by a sense of crisis stemming from a number of factors, chief among them the school district’s continuing financial shortfalls. In the past three years, it has been forced to cut a total of more than $800 million from its budget, and it is facing a deficit of $600 million for next year.

Potentially complicating these budget problems is a proposed state ballot initiative to establish a system of state-financed vouchers that could be used at any public or private school. If the proposal qualifies for the ballot and is approved by voters in November, it would harm the the public schools by siphoning off additional money, critics of the measure say. (See Education Week, May 6, 1992.)

The recent Los Angeles riots, meanwhile, have underscored the city’s social ills and the need to revitalize the public schools, according to Mike Roos, the president and chief executive officer of LEARN.

When LEARN was organized last year, Mr. Roos said, members realized that the city was “sitting on a ticking time bomb.’'

“Now that there has been a manifestation of severe dysfunction in this community, a renewed or added dimension of urgency has been injected’’ into the group’s deliberations, he said.

“If you’re talking about rebuilding Los Angeles,’' Mr. Roos argued, “the first thing you have to do is rebuild the schools.’'

A ‘Blitzkrieg’

Despite the consensus of those involved in the project on the need for dramatic action, the final recommendations for change that LEARN expects to issue by the end of next month are likely to touch off a number of battles that could result in significant changes to the draft proposals.

But LEARN has the bipartisan political clout to see its vision become reality, according to both Mr. Roos and Richard Riordan, a prominent local lawyer and businessman who helped found the group. Mr. Riordan, a Republican, also is considering running for mayor of Los Angeles in the nonpartisan elections set for next April.

They note that Mr. Roos is a Democratic former speaker pro tem of the California Assembly, while Robert E. Wycoff, the chairman of LEARN and the president and chief executive officer of the áòãï Corporation, is an influential Republican.

Members of LEARN say they intend to shepherd legislation through the state legislature to bring about some of the fundamental changes they are contemplating.

“This is going to be a like a blitzkrieg,’' vowed Mr. Riordan. “We want changes in the law that will literally transfer the power to us.’'

Other changes would have to be made by the board of education--some through negotiations with United Teachers of Los Angeles and other employee groups. The unions already have balked at some of the accountability provisions.

“Our first and foremost goal is looking for harmony and consensus,’' Mr. Roos said. “But if that falls short, it doesn’t mean that this goes away. We will calculate another way to attack it.’'

Authority for Principals

LEARN’s seven task forces, which have a total of 500 members, are now meeting to reach consensus on preliminary reports. The drafts were written by representatives of a number of groups, including local universities, the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, and the national management-consulting firms Booz Allen & Hamilton and McKinsey & Company.

The preliminary reports make recommendations for improving school governance, accountability and assessment, social services, parent involvement, school facilities, professional development, and the transition from school to work.

Next month, a “conference committee’’ of members from each task force will meet to combine the proposals into a single document for release throughout the city.

The draft reports on governance and accountability, prepared by the two management-consulting firms, are considered to contain the most radical proposals.

The governance report, for example, calls for vesting authority at each school in the principal, who would work under a two-year contract.

Principals would be chosen for their positions by district administrators, without regard to seniority, and would be subject to a recall vote by parents and teachers “as a precaution.’'

“The process for holding recall votes should be carefully crafted to avoid creating a disruptive, rather than a constructive process,’' the report cautions.

In addition, full-time assistant principals would be replaced with assistant principals who spend part of their time teaching.

No Formal Councils

The draft document on governance does not mention establishing school-site councils to work with principals, as has been done in other districts, most notably in Chicago. But members of LEARN said schools would be likely to create such councils on their own to work with principals.

Currently, about 80 schools in Los Angeles are participating in a school-based-management process, while all of the city’s 640 schools have contractually mandated decisionmaking councils that have a more limited function.

“The people who did the research for us felt that many districts with councils became too process-oriented, rather than results-oriented,’' Mr. Roos said. "[The draft proposal] is an attempt to try to get away from that model.’'

To prepare principals for such an expanded role in schools, the report recommends that the district develop a new “skill profile’’ for principals and a new training and assessment program. Currently, the report notes, the district has “little depth of principal strength.’'

Eli Brent, the president of the Associated Adminstrators of Los Angeles, called the recall proposal “ludicrous’’ and noted that under a two-year contract the principal would be a “lame duck’’ during the second year.

“You’d have to walk around on eggs not to irritate a teacher,’' he said. “What principal in their right mind is ever going to give a teacher an unsatisfactory rating or disciplinary action? You would have to be crazy.’'

Instead, the A.A.L.A. has proposed that principals continue to retain the tenure provisions they now have and be evaluated by their immediate supervisors.

The association also takes the position that assistant principals must continue to do administrative work only.

Mr. Brent contended that relations between teachers and administrators in Los Angeles are far too bitter for the recommendations to succeed in improving schools.

“It’s a war zone here,’' he said. “This is a school system where principal-bashing is the norm.’'

New Compensation System

Although the teachers’ union has long championed reductions in administrative positions and spending--and for teachers and individual schools to have far greater latitude in decisionmaking--LEARN’s draft proposals also contain proposals that have traditionally been anathema to teachers.

Both the governance and accountability reports call for the compensation of teachers, principals and assistant principals, school teams, regional principals, and central-office support personnel to be based, in part, on their performance.

It is unlikely, however, that the final report will recommend compensating individual teachers based on performance, according to Mr. Riordan.

“That got nowhere,’' he said.

It is also unclear whether a proposal to dismiss a teacher after two consecutive poor ratings will be included in the final report. The drafts recommend that teachers who receive poor reviews be helped by principals and master teachers and be evaluated quarterly during a one-year probationary period.

Mr. Brent of the A.A.L.A. charged that the recommendations amount to stripping teachers of their tenure and due-process rights.

The draft reports call for setting teachers’ base pay by seniority-based grades, but making a “significant percentage’’ of their compensation “dependent on performance.’'

Issue in Contract Talks

Helen Bernstein, the president of the U.T.L.A., insisted in a recent interview that “there is no pay for performance’’ in the recommendations.

Instead, she said, if accomplished teachers, chosen by their peers, took on added responsibility, they would be paid more for that work.

Any proposals to change the method of paying teachers are likely to be especially sensitive now, because the teachers’ contract expires in June.

Negotiations on a new contract will be conducted amid the continuing budget crisis and with LEARN’s final recommendations as a subject of bargaining.

The proposals first must be submitted to the union’s Delegate Assembly and general membership for approval and inclusion in the negotiating package.

While noting that she is generally supportive of the reform plans, Ms. Bernstein said she would like the final document to reflect the “systemic crisis’’ facing the district, independent of the organization and performance of its schools.

“When you’re going down in ashes, it’s a good time to reorder,’' she said, “but we’re going on beyond ashes here.’'

“They’re talking about laying off 3,000 more teachers and pay cuts of 10 to 15 percent,’' she continued. “There’s no recognition of the complete underfunding’’ of the school district in the reports.

‘Core Competencies’

A number of the LEARN task-force recommendations are likely to be expensive to carry out, including proposals to retrain teachers and administrators and to develop a new student-assessment system.

Mr. Roos said the group had not projected what its reforms would cost, but said it expects significant savings to result from some of the proposals.

The accountability report, for example, recommends that schools become the “primary source of budget authority’’ and have flexibility in the selection and use of staff members.

Other draft proposals call for:

  • Replacing the general-education curriculum with “core competencies’’ that would enable students either to go on to postsecondary education or to move into a vocation. The school-to-work document is closely modeled after the recommendations of the recent U.S. Labor Department report drawn up by the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, or SCANS.
  • Instituting a “common core of learning’’ for students, linking rigorous new assessments to it, and moving toward a system in which students gradually increase their focus on academics, the arts, or technical subjects as they move through school.
  • Integrating health and social services with schools by giving schools in problem-plagued communities an “extra claim’’ on services provided by the Los Angeles County government. Employees in these areas would essentially be protected from budget reductions if they were working with schools.
  • Requiring each school to develop its own parent-involvement plan, making use of a manual of “best practices’’ developed by the district.
  • Strengthening the quality of the district’s teachers by offering continuous training, establishing professional-development schools, and changing the culture of schools to enable teachers to work collaboratively.
  • Freeing the school district from cumbersome and expensive state regulations that make it virtually impossible to build new schools. Rather than issuing a report about school facilities, Mr. Roos said, LEARN is drafting proposed state legislation seeking waivers that would allow the district to lease space in office buildings to use as schools.

“We’re in the midst of the greatest commercial real-estate glut of air-conditioned, earthquake-proof buildings,’' he pointed out.

Mr. Roos added that he envisioned the legislation allowing the district to use for educational programs the expected savings from leasing space rather than building new schools.

‘Breaking Down Walls’

Since the formation of LEARN, critics have leveled a number of complaints about the group’s makeup.

Mr. Brent of the administrators’ union said that his association and the classified employees’ unions had been “blackballed’’ from participating in the LEARN deliberations.

Mr. Riordan did not dispute Mr. Brent’s charge.

“The bureaucrats are going to get clobbered’’ in the reform push, Mr. Riordan added.

Ms. Bernstein, the president of the õ.ô.ì.á., was among the original founders of LEARN, and Superintendent of Schools William R. Anton is a member of the core 13-member “executive working group’’ that launched the reform effort. In March, Warren Furutani, the president of the board of education, joined the group.

At its inception, some grassroots community groups in Los Angeles that had been involved in school-reform planning charged that LEARN would be co-opted by the participation of the teachers'-union president and the superintendent. (See Education Week, May 15, 1991.)

Only one member has left the organization, according to Mary Chambers, the vice president of LEARN. Joseph F. Alibrandi, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Whittaker Corporation, parted ways with the group over his support for the voucher initiative, which LEARN strongly opposes. Instead, LEARN is calling for widespread choice for parents and students among the public schools.

It is an accomplishment in itself that virtually the entire coalition of 500 leaders, representing the whole spectrum of life in Los Angeles, has held together, participants say.

“There was a lot of trepidation when we started,’' said Virgil Roberts, the president of Solar Records and a member of the working group. “Many people came in with the idea, ‘Let me protect my turf.’''

“A good part of what we’ve been doing,’' he said, “is breaking down those walls.’'

A version of this article appeared in the May 27, 1992 edition of Education Week as Fueled by Sense of Crisis, Coalition Forges Plan To Rebuild L.A. Schools


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