School & District Management Opinion

Here’s the Peace Prize for the L.A. Charter War

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 30, 2017 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last week I called the recent Los Angeles Unified School District board election a shameful and misguided continuation of the Charter School Wars that have become the political line in the sand for the nation’s second largest school district.

I haven’t calculated the cost of the charter school wars. We’ve just had a school board election that cost north of $15-million. And people still want trench warfare. The victors in this war are either disingenuous or delusional in thinking they saved kids or helped parents. They just inherited big long-standing problems. The losers are rattling increasingly rusty sabers.

Because the current battle lines in the charter war perpetuate stalemate, a productive peace requires creating a new goal, so that the question becomes how to design a 21st Century school system rather than whether the old system should be charter friendly or not.

California and Los Angeles should be a world leader in personalization, adaptivity, delivering educative content directly to students. But the possibilities of designing new learning systems have not been made sufficiently vivid to gain political champions and supporters.

Neither the charter school expansion advocates, nor those pushing back against them, have publicly acknowledged the need to create a fundamentally different school system than the one put in place a century ago. But pivoting away from debating more or fewer charters and toward designing a truly modern school system provides a window for a political breakthrough if someone had the moxie and political clout to take advantage of it.

At the end of our book, Learning from L.A. we suggest some policy ideas that might move the huge school system toward reinvention. Given a decade’s hindsight, I’d amend those ideas with the following design elements:

1. Continue Decentralization

In 1967, prodded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the District began to plan in response to its changing student demographics. What was called the Planning Team produced a major reform plan with four elements—decentralization, grassroots involvement, higher standards for all, and greater variety and choice—found in virtually every subsequent plan.

Though reform plans and superintendents have come and gone, the trend toward more decentralization continues. In addition to more than 250 charters, the school district has three brands of semi-autonomous schools: 49 Pilot schools, 24 Extended School Based Management schools, and 21 Local School Initiative schools. There are also 23 Magnet schools.

A 21st Century LAUSD should build on this trend.

2. Build Networks, Not Little Hierarchies

Don’t break up LAUSD. Help it become a modern network of schools.

Operationally, large, integrated civil service hierarchies were idealized as the “good government” form of public schooling in the early 20th Century, and LAUSD became one of the most complete and best-developed examples of this Progressive Era idea. And it just kept getting bigger, growing as the city grew and absorbing surrounding school districts until 1964.

But computer technology and experience with organizations such as cooperatives, franchises, and loosely coupled cellular organizations point to the operating advantage of 21st Century network design. Largely autonomous subunits link with one another to provide support, training, idea generation, and economies of scale.

Network design is one of the ways that LAUSD can effectively decentralize, a goal that school reformers in Los Angeles have chased for four decades. The basic idea is to devolve as much operating authority to individual schools as possible, then let the schools link with one another in networks.

3. Create a Big Tent

The current parallel system of charter and traditional public schools is unsustainable. The inherent conflicts of interest insure continuation of the Charter Wars and will lead to the collapse of the school district on which charters depend.

Los Angeles needs an organization that makes all its publicly financed schools work together.

Experience in New Orleans, Newark, Washington, DC, and other cities indicates that there needs to be systemic coherence. Increasingly, even charter-friendly writers and activists, such as Andy Smarick, are coming to the conclusion that simply adding more charters doesn’t fix a city’s education system. (More about the big tent in a future post.)

4. Design With Extreme Empathy

When I interviewed Tim Brown, CEO of the design firm IDEO, about the process of rethinking systems he said, “The first step is building empathy for the stakeholders in the system.” In a school system, that means starting with the students and working out. Any idea that does not successfully motivate a student will ultimately fail.

In order to focus on students, the adults need to get beyond their self-serving partisan scripts. Stop the mantras that charter schools are only the province of “billionaires and privatizers,” or that “older teachers are inherently grifters, only in it for their pensions” or “charters are saving kids from failing public schools.” There are no saints in this war, only interest groups, and real differences about those interests.

The moralizing evoked over the last 20 years is helping no one.

Los Angeles needs a real design studio where people can check their ideology at the door and work at being hard on the problem rather than vicious to one another. That may be one of the roles that partnership organizations, such as the L.A. Compact, should play.

Start with the lives of real students, not statistical profiles. Follow them through the day and week. Understand their context and families. Learn how they process information in school and outside. Then think about how to do school better.

Build prototypes rapidly. Try them out. Don’t try to create universal solutions.

5. Solve Structural Problems

Part of building to last involves solving big structural fiscal problems that endanger any reform or transformation problem at LAUSD.

It’s important that political and legal attention be directed toward solving the pension problem, funding special education, and making the Local Control Financing System work.

Because the problems are so contentious, some special structure is probably needed. The high-level commission created by former superintendent Ray Cortines, painted an alarming picture of the district’s vulnerabilities, as have previous internal reports. None of these has been sufficient to spur action. The state needs to create a body with sufficient authority to solve the pension problem.

6. Create a New Learning Infrastructure

Some years ago, I started looking at new forms of learning. The harder I looked, the more I realized that the way out of permanent crisis was a new version of education: make investments in it and build political support around those ideas and investments.

The good news is that we have it within our reach to break down the batch processing system that the Progressive Reformers brought to us from industrial manufacturing a century ago. Public education is now in an unusual situation in which relatively small investments in learning infrastructure can have substantial impact in terms of capacity building and systems changing. (More about this in a future post.)

Conclusion: Why Don’t We Claim the Peace Dividend?

The politics of charter schooling have produced ugly and debilitating warfare. Neither party to the war grasps the larger issue of an institution in transition. There is a large peace dividend to be claimed, but there is no political will or apparent incentive to do so. That’s bad.

Related Tags:

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.