Los Angeles Reform Coalition Faces Early Roadblocks

By Jonathan Weisman — May 15, 1991 7 min read
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Amid a worsening fiscal outlook for district schools and continuing skepticism among some community activists, a high-powered coalition in Los Angeles is proceeding with its effort to spearhead dramatic changes in education there.

Some activists involved in school issues say they doubt that the coalition, formed earlier this year, can effect real reform, given what they see as its tilt toward the local business and education leadership.

A number of group members, meanwhile, have raised questions about the prospects for reform in a time of financial austerity and renewed friction between the school district and its teachers. (See related story, this page.)

But most members of the nascent Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, known as learn, say they remain confident the coalition will bring about the devolution of power and wholesale curricular reform to which it has committed itself.

“Through learn, we will have the ability to create real changes,” Rosalinda Lugo, who represents a coalition of community groups on the organization’s board of directors, said last week.

“And I think learn will work,” she said, “because it has all the major players and the community groups all pulling together to make it work.”

The private, nonprofit group, launched in February through the efforts of influential business leaders, brought corporate executives and numerous community organizations to the table with William R. Anton, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Helen Bernstein, president of the powerful United Teachers of Los Angeles.

But even some community leaders who support the effort say they are cautious about its prospects.

“It’s a good thing that this has gotten together, but I think the problem is how do you institutionalize a real education revolution through a group like this,” said Lydia Lopez, a former president of the United Neighborhood Organizations. “I don’t think you can.”

“The only reason we came in is to bring in something fresh, a spark,” said Faynessa Armand, strategy-committee co-chairman for the advocacy group Kids 1st, a coalition member.

“As one of the players [in education reform], we’re more than glad to have them around,” Ms. Armand said of the coalition, “but I’m not holding my breath waiting for them to bring about change.”

While a blueprint for reform of the 625,000-student district, the nation’s second largest, will not emerge for some time, coalition leaders say just forging the new group out of the vast, fragmented Los Angeles community was a major accomplishment.

“The idea came out of the growing frustration of [business leaders] with education-reform efforts that haven’t seemed to have any real impact,” said Virgil Roberts, president and general counsel of Solar Records, who serves on the group’s board.

“The idea was, maybe if you can pull together an organization that has a broader base in the affected community, you can make a real impact,” he said.

Others, however, say the coalition “co-opted” a grassroots push for reform that held greater promise of achieving a drastic restructuring of Los Angeles schools.

According to Curtis Page, who in March left his post as campaign di8rector for Kids 1st, the true impetus for learn came from numerous community groups that gathered 13,000 of their members last October for an assembly on school reform.

Despite their numbers, Mr. Page said, the community activists felt powerless against what they saw as an entrenched education system, and turned to the city’s business leaders for help. At that point, he said, the union chief and the superintendent saw a need to get involved.

“What that has done is drain off some of the pressure,” Mr. Page asserted. “The belief of Kids 1st was that change could never come from within the system. As I perceive it now, people feel really co-opted.”

A prominent local businessman, who spoke on condition that he not be named, said the community groups had made “a Faustian deal” with business to gain backing for reform.

“The golden rule applies here,” he said. “Those who have the gold make the rules.”

Some activists no longer involved in learn said they had hoped the group would operate along the lines of a similar coalition in Chicago, bypassing the system by effecting radical reform through a popular revolt and pressure on the state legislature.

But others noted that such a strategy fails to involve the education players who ultimately must actually implement the reform.

One business leader active in the Los Angeles coalition, Robert E. Wycoff, president and chief executive officer of the arco Corporation, said he was convinced Mr. Anton and Ms. Bernstein were dedicated to broad-reaching reform. And without them, he said, all that the group could produce would be recommendations that would go nowhere.

“The plan we come up with will not be some unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky proposal,” he said. “It will be grounded in the reality of what we can and cannot do.”

The president of learn, Mike Roos, a former speaker pro tem of the California Assembly, said those who would leave district and union leaders out of the process were exhibiting “incredible naivete about how to affect a governmental and political organization.”

Indeed, business leaders sought out Mr. Roos because of his political savvy, which they hope will maintain the coalition and ultimately maneuver reform measures through the legislature in Sacramento.

Instead of pointing to Chicago, learn members and supporters look to Rochester, N.Y., and Pittsburgh as instructive models. There, broad coalitions helped break down what Paul Hill, a senior social scientist at the rand Corporation, called the “iron triangle” that separated educators from the community they serve.

Allan Odden, director of the center for research on education finance at the University of Southern California, acknowledged that from their vantage point in learn, educators could co-opt the reform effort.

But, he added, “the business people involved are real pushers and movers and shakers. They would be very unhappy if they saw the downside [of including education leaders] looming on the horizon.”

In the short run, the school system’s fiscal woes threaten to undermine cooperation on reform between the district and the teachers’ union.

According to Ms. Bernstein of the utla, the massive cuts Superintendent Anton proposed for the district last week--including a 7 percent pay cut for teachers--shattered the cordial relations the union president and the schools chief had developed since both took office last summer.

“The truce we had between us is probably over,” Ms. Bernstein said.

She added that the financial crisis may already have doomed reform--at least for now. “If the union has to spend all our time defending ourselves,” she said, “we won’t have much left over for reform.”

Such talk worries other learn members, who would rather look at the district’s financial troubles as an opportunity to propel change.

Richard J. Riordan, a lawyer, businessman, and one of learn’s founders, said the bureaucratic costs of the school system had become more apparent, and that budget cuts were forcing a closer look at priorities.

“In the short term, this is a dangerous situation,” Mr. Roos admitted. “The stakes are high in terms of how the district deals with the union.”

“But on the other hand,” he added, “receiving far less revenue from the state gives Los Angeles a real incentive to rethink the way it delivers education.”

Mr. Anton pledged this month to shift decisionmaking out of the district’s downtown headquarters and to eliminate at least 155 management positions, moves that learn officials say are in the right direction.

Under an agreement hammered out after a teachers’ strike two years ago, Los Angeles is already involved in a major experiment in “power sharing” between the district and its schools. That effort has earned mixed reviews so far. (See Education Week, April 11, 1990.)

Even some of those closely involved in the learn effort admit their patience for district politics may be limited.

Ms. Lugo, the group’s community representative, said she was prepared to leave the coalition if it proved ineffective, and to organize parents to force change from the outside.

“We’ll take it meeting by meeting,” she said. “If by the fall I don’t see us going in the right direction, we’ll pull out.”

Business leaders said they, too, were keeping a close eye on the group’s progress.

“The logical first approach is to get everybody around the table,” said Joseph F. Alibrandi, chairman and chief executive officer of the Whittaker Corporation. “If it comes to the situation where one or two feel they cannot go on with the plan, we will have to do what any business does: move out on the will of the majority or find some other way to proceed.”

That other way, he added, could be removing some of the name cards around the negotiating table.

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 1991 edition of Education Week as Los Angeles Reform Coalition Faces Early Roadblocks

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