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Education Opinion

Lessons From Los Angeles

By Sarah Reckhow — October 19, 2012 5 min read
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Note: Sarah Reckhow, assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University, is guest posting this week.

In my book, Follow the Money, I compare the top-down approach to education reform in New York City to the slower and more open approach of Los Angeles. Today I will show that Los Angeles--a place that rarely gets highlighted by Boardroom Progressives--has some lessons for would-be-reformers.

Although Mayor Villaraigosa attempted to gain mayoral control in 2006, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is still governed by an elected board. This makes LAUSD less attractive for funders who favor districts with mayoral or state control, but it has not stopped major foundations from investing in Los Angeles charter schools. In 2005, major foundations gave no funds directly to LAUSD, but gave $16.2 million to organizations in the charter sector. Los Angeles has more students enrolled in charter schools than any other school district--82,788 students in the 2011-12 school year (12.5% of the total K-12 enrollment in the district). Nearly half of Los Angeles charter schools are operated by charter management organizations, such as Green Dot, Alliance for College Ready Public Schools, and Aspire Public Schools.

Based on this context--elected school board and rapid charter growth--one might expect education policy in LA to be highly politicized and deeply divided. On the surface, this appears to be true. Pro-union and pro-charter protestors regularly gather at LAUSD board meetings, and school board campaigns attract millions in contributions from outside organizations. The Los Angeles area is home to parent trigger controversies (the subject of the recent film, Won’t Back Down) and the famous Green Dot “takeover” of a public school--Locke High School. Furthermore, all of this controversy is layered on top of an unwieldy school district facing five consecutive years of deficits. LAUSD should be ungovernable and hobbled by polarization. But that is only half of the story.

Using surveys and social network analysis, I discovered a robust and closely linked group of advocates and neighborhood organizations that share information with both the charter sector and LAUSD. There is policy consensus among a very diverse set of education leaders and stakeholders that LAUSD should encourage charter-like autonomy for traditional public schools. Of course, consensus about an idea can seem easy when the real battles are fought in implementation. How much autonomy? Will autonomous schools operate with “thin” labor contracts? Will principals have discretion over which teachers to hire? Despite these questions, LAUSD is moving ahead, most recently with a new MOU negotiated between the district and the teachers’ union, which establishes a procedure for school level autonomy on issues like curriculum, length of school day, and union contract provisions. Moreover, student achievement in LA is steadily improving, according to state level assessments (API) as well as NAEP scores.

How did LAUSD get to this point? Unlike New York City--where philanthropic funding supported a top-down approach to reform, a fairly similar set of reform ideas (school level autonomy, choice, and accountability) have spread more slowly and organically in Los Angeles. Philanthropy has supported these ideas through large grants for charter expansion and smaller grants supporting advocacy groups. Two lessons from LA stand out:

1. Local Ownership and Investment: For organizations working to shape education policy, locally generated political support is an integral resource. Investment from diverse groups requires persistent engagement and willingness to seriously address local concerns--not just “outreach” or “communication strategies.” In Los Angeles, many of the organizations that received major foundation funding to implement reforms--including charter management organizations--developed direct relationships with local advocacy organizations and constituents. Advocacy groups like Alliance for a Better Community, InnerCity Struggle, and Community Coalition have taken on varying roles in developing reform policies: as both partners and competitors with charter groups to open and operate new schools, as advocates for reforming teacher contracts, and as leaders in a citywide reform coalition.

2. Change Takes Time: For an outside philanthropist concerned with long-term sustainability, building broad political support should be more attractive than seeking out the next Michelle Rhee. In Los Angeles, the expansion of charter schools and charter-like autonomy for public schools is developing through public debate, deliberation, community organizing, and electoral politics. These processes take a long time, and they do not always move forward in a coherent direction. But the expansion of charter-like autonomy for public schools now has support from a majority of Board of Education members, the Mayor, several local advocacy organizations, charter school supporters, and many public school teachers.

I know that these lessons may sound unduly optimistic in light of the contentious realities of urban education politics. Los Angeles will have important local elections in 2013 for a new mayor and three members of the board of education. And many candidates and pundits will grumble about the excessive influence of the teachers’ union through campaign contributions and voter mobilization.

Some Boardroom Progressive reformers and foundation leaders point to the substantial influence of teachers’ unions and argue that special interests corrupt education politics and their interests must be sidelined. This strategy often depends on strong centralized leadership, swift policy change, large-scale private funding and the expectation that the public can be persuaded after the fact. Yet this aggressive political strategy means reformers lose the opportunity to build a diverse coalition. In addition to avoiding compromise with union leaders, the insider reform strategy also removes the political channels available to public school parents and other less powerful local interests. Promoting policy reforms “to” a community rather than “with” a community also has important political consequences, and leaders who ignore these consequences often pay the price at the ballot box. Foundation funded reforms will have greater staying power if they can prosper with lively democratic politics.

--Sarah Reckhow

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.