School & District Management Opinion

First Steps Toward Decentralization in L.A.

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — October 14, 2015 3 min read
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Schemes to decentralize the Los Angeles Unified School District aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, but they are at least a plan a decade. This summer, outgoing Superintendent Ray Cortines dusted off a quite decent plan he put together in 2000, during one of his previous terms as the district’s mister-fix-it, and revised it to create six “semi-autonomous” districts.

Decentralization has been a powerful idea for reforming the district for nearly half a century, but its persistence as an idea has been matched by the district’s inability to implement it. Each school reform effort since 1967 involved decentralization. All failed. Cortines’ 2000 plan was shelved by budget constraints and a replacement superintendent who followed the maxim of never implementing a predecessor’s ideas.

So, how’s this one going? It’s early in the process, but some tangible progress is necessary to keep the incoming superintendent—whoever that is—from trashing this effort.

The Cortines plan is simultaneously bold and tentative. It features an upside down pyramid with change coming from the bottom, but it retains district-wide goals and accountability standards, and Beaudry—as the central office is called—still holds the purse strings.

Three of the newly named district superintendents responded to questions about the decentralization system now in its third month.

Francis Gipson, superintendent of the East District, writes that her district has aligned its work to the district goals, and that they have “transformational strategies that reflect the local design and autonomies.”

‘Team Kid’ Approach

Her response also picked up customer service thread from Cortines’ plan, which said that employees that don’t work in a school work for schools. She called it the “team kid” approach.

Roberto Martinez, who heads the Central District, provided a clear-eyed assessment of some of the barriers that decentralization faces. “For LAUSD to make decentralization work, it needs to release the dollars to the local districts,” he wrote. The local districts got some funds, but “many decisions are still made at the central level, for example hiring personnel and then placing them in local districts.” Ordering textbooks, contracts, and facilities issues are still centralized.

Martinez’ observations ring true historically. In our study of the LEARN/LAAMP reforms of the 1990s, which were intended to decentralize decision making in participating schools, principals quickly found that they did not get the financial flexibility that they were promised—or the extra dollars—and ardor for the program cooled.

The commodity in short supply is trust, not money. As Martinez put it, “trust and accountability are key to decentralization. Be it in a crisis or in the need to provide resources to a school, too many chiefs in decision-making have the danger of slowing down the process or not making the right decisions.”

Still, there is more than a ray of optimism. Christopher Downing, who heads local district South, said that people in his district believe that this decentralization effort is real, genuine, because Cortines’ has been sending consistent messages that it is, and that these have been backed by decentralization of support staff to local district offices.

Better Than A Year Ago

All three superintendents said things were better than they were a year ago. For example, the MiSiS student information system works and instructional technology support is more decentralized. Martinez wrote that many of the information system problems “could have been avoided but the previous superintendent (John Deasy) made decisions on his own in spite of warnings from those in the field.”

“Currently, decisions are made by surveying those in the field,” he continued. “This type of leadership brings many to the table and people take ownership of what is decided.”

When asked about what needs to happen to make decentralization successful, Downing replied, “Continue on the current path.”

My calculation is that the decentralization plan will survive the top leadership transition only if the local superintendents hang together in its support, push back against opposition, and put their jobs on the line to protect it. Benjaman Franklin’s words come to mind, “if we don’t hang together, we will surely hang separately.”

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