School & District Management Opinion

Former State Board Member Says, ‘Breakup L.A. District’

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 04, 2015 2 min read
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Carl Cohn, recently resigned member of the California State Board of Education and a former superintendent in Long Beach and San Diego, has called for breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

Cohn writes in EdSource that, “LAUSD’s governance structure is fundamentally broken and needs to be replaced by smaller units of school governance that are much more capable of delivering educational change that better serves students and their parents. In addition to being nimble and flexible, smaller school districts are physically closer to the parents they serve, and can initiate change strategies in a much more timely fashion.”

I’ve come to know Cohn as a faculty colleague at the Claremont Graduate University and respect him as a thoughtful and perceptive educator and also as a careful policy advocate. When Carl talks, people listen. He know that, and I suspect that his jottings are informed by a breath of political wind, even though he rhetorically shrugs that, “I’m sure that Sacramento doesn’t have this on its ‘to do’ list.”

He has called for a blue ribbon task with representatives from the 20 cities served by the current district. Don’t know about that. There may be a score of cities in the LAUSD enrollment area, but only one of them has the clout to engage the school district. Thus far, L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti has shown no appetite for the high-risk historically low reward politics involved in trying to get the school district to do something that it assuredly doesn’t want to do.

There is, however, another way: break up the operations without breaking up the district. At the end of Learning from L.A., our Harvard Education Press book about efforts to reform LAUSD, we advocated creating autonomous schools and networks, borrowing artfully from the charter school idea and extending it to district-run schools. LAUSD is already walking down this road. There are more charters in Los Angeles than in any city in the country, and the Pilot School model shows that it is possible to create autonomy within district run schools, at least in principle. (At least a few of these schools are effectively teacher run.)

We considered district breakup when we were writing the last policy chapter in Learning from L.A., and we rejected it because we thought that it would lead to a decade-long court battle over whether, how, and who gets what property.

But, regardless of technique, the radical restructuring of LAUSD is likely to rise on someone’s political agenda. Soon.

(Note to readers: I’ll return to the series on dashboards and accountability systems next week.)

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