Earlier this month, 83-year-old Ramon Cortines stepped behind the podium at Garfield High School and gave what may have been his last speech as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. In an informal talk punctuated by folksy humor and a call for unity, he gave new currency to a half-century old idea that the school district needed to be radically decentralized.
Pushing authority and responsibility downward has been part of the agenda of almost every reform effort since 1967, and Cortines has tried to implement it before, too, most notably in 2000 when he wrote, “The changes that are being proposed are dramatic: the timetable for implemention is tight. With so many LAUSD schools failing to meet minimal standards of performance, there is no time for delay.” This month he tried again, announcing a plan to divide the district into six largely autonomous subdistricts.
Earlier, top administrators had seen an outline of the plan, which featured an upside-down pyramid typical of decentralized organization plans. Schools and communities are supposed to be drivers of change, the six local districts are to be leaders of change, and the central office a support organization. For LAUSD, this will involve a lot of unlearning, if not an organizational frontal lobotomy.
Will This Work?
Is there any reason to believe that Cortines’ aspiration of decentralization will become reality, particularly since he’s planning to retire, this time with finality after three stints as superintendent. “Don’t call me again,” he quipped in his speech, “I’m changing my number.”
Smart money says “no": nothing will change in the future because nothing changed in the past, as readers commented in response to news reports of the new plan. In The Transformation of Great American School Districts, (Harvard Ed Press) my coauthors and I described a series of reform plans that failed to be fully implemented, these stretching back nearly five decades.
Why any hope now? The big reason that Cortines’ decentralization has a chance of working is that the time is right. Decentralization has been one of four big ideas that reformers have sought over the decades. The other three have—at least in some part—been realized:
- California has created a clear system of universal high standards. These standards will remain in place whether or not the idea of a Common Core of standards across states persists.
- Parent and teacher engagement have been given legal standing through the state’s Local Control Funding Formula and its associated accountability mechanism. The question for a decentralized LAUSD is how far down in the system will these finance and budgeting decisions flow? Prior decentralization efforts failed, in part, because schools never got control over their own purse strings.
- Schools in Los Angeles offer a variety of pedagogical offerings and choice among them. In many ways, LAUSD is the unacknowledged national champion in providing different modes of schooling—from magnets, to charters, to pilot schools—and one of the goals of decentralization is to allow local districts to respond to neighborhood needs.
I’ve characterized LAUSD as being in permanent crisis, flailing between an old identity and auditions of a new one. That’s different than calling it a failing district. Cortines hates the failing schools talk, and so do I. As I’ve written before, LAUSD has deep pockets of innovation. And, importantly, it is regaining the capacity to operate smoothly. This year’s school opening was a marked contrast with 2014, when flaws in its information system left thousands of students without scheduled classes.
Pick a Leader Who Will Decentralize
But LAUSD lacks a singular vision of its future form: one that will excite people and change the political dynamics. When institutions are in flux—as public education is—it is new ideas that allow people to organize, not loyalty to an old institution.
The LAUSD board needs to articulate this vision now: build out the set of bullet points in the Cortines plan. (On Sunday, the board met in closed session to discuss the search, and in a short open-session meeting decided to interview two search firms.)
Then, it needs to build its vision into the search for a new superintendent. It needs to pick a superintendent that knows how to operate a decentralized organization. Starting from a prerequisite of managerial success in a decentralized environment will also dramatically simplify the search for a new superintendent. There aren’t very many candidates with those skills.
Most would-be superintendents—including all of those who want to appear as knights in shining armor—want to grab the reigns of power, hire a handful of true believers, and govern from the top. By eliminating those folks from the list, the board can focus on identifying and recruiting people who can actually run a decentralized system.
The opinions expressed in On California 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.