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School & District Management

Proposal Would Open Up Management of L.A. Schools

By Lesli A. Maxwell — August 21, 2009 4 min read
1LosAngeles 515

Fed up with the slow pace of academic improvement in the nation’s second-largest school district, some Los Angeles education leaders are seeking to open up the management of 50 new schools set to open in the city over the next four years.

Outside operators or in-house talent would compete to manage the schools, as well as to take turning around as many as 200 that are chronic underperformers.

A formal resolution—which calls for “internal and external stakeholders” to submit “operational and instructional plans” for managing the schools—was set for a vote by members of the Los Angeles Unified school board on Aug. 25. The proposal has drawn fierce opposition from United Teachers Los Angeles, whose top leader called it a “giveaway to charter schools,” but has garnered strong support from parent and charter school groups, as well as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Whether the measure will win the four votes necessary for adoption was uncertain.

Yolie Flores Aguilar, the author of the resolution and the vice president of the school board, said she was compelled to push for a “new way” after seeing a report from researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, showing that out of every 100 students enrolled in high schools in her school board district comprised of communities in southeast Los Angeles, as few as 28, and no more than 36, actually graduated. Third grade students’ reading scores also alarmed her: Less than 30 percent are reading at grade level.

“I didn’t know whether to scream or to cry,” said Ms. Flores Aguilar. “My frustration is at the casualness of how people have reacted to the failure of so many of our schools.

“When I look at the data indicators, I think this is a 911 emergency,” she said. “I don’t understand why we aren’t stepping it up.”

Administrative Route

The proposal calls specifically for inviting school planning teams, charter-management organizations, the teachers’ union, local community organizations, and other groups to make pitches for operating the new and low-performing schools. Ms. Flores Aguilar said she would not favor for-profit education groups competing to manage schools, unless robust community support was behind the idea.

Exactly how the management pitches would be judged and how the competitive process would unfold would be up to Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines and his team. Mr. Cortines would review each proposal and make recommendations to the school board, which would have to give final approval.

Mr. Cortines, who pushed for Ms. Flores Aguilar to target low-achieving schools as well as new schools, said if the board doesn’t approve the measure, he will pursue the strategy administratively.

“We must look at every single one of these schools individually and come up with a prescriptive plan for each of them,” said Mr. Cortines, who added that the district’s administrators, principals, and teachers can be strong competitors for managing schools. “Too much of the hype has been around giving schools away, and I don’t give schools away.”

A number of parent groups have been pushing for the resolution’s adoption, and one of them, the Parent Revolution, was actively campaigning in the districts of two board members who had not yet decided how they would vote.

Ben Austin, the executive director of the Parent Revolution, a group closely affiliated with some Los Angeles charter-management organizations, including Green Dot Public Schools, said the district’s $20 billion school construction program can’t be called a success when many of the new schools sunk to the bottom academically.

“They literally begin to fail under federal law the day after the ribbon-cutting ceremony,” said Mr. Austin, referring to the No Child Left Behind Act. “This resolution would transform a school construction program into an engine of reform.”

Mr. Austin said his group would like the resolution to go even further by including a provision that would empower parents to trigger the process for seeking a new operator of a district school that is failing.

“We’ve got to stop cutting these transactional deals that try to make everyone happy, because they don’t accomplish any real reform,” he said. “The only people that need to be happy are the parents, and invariably, what’s good for parents and children is also good for teachers.”

Union Busting?

A.J. Duffy, the president of the 48,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, said the resolution is designed to give schools away to charter groups and to Mayor Villaraigosa, whose Partnership for Los Angeles Schools now runs 10 low-achieving schools in the district. He also called the measure a blatant attempt to “break the union.”

“We are not opposed to outside interests coming in, but we want those outside interests to adhere to the bargaining agreement that already exists,” Mr. Duffy said.

While he acknowledged that the union, or groups of teachers, could compete to operate the schools, Mr. Duffy pledged to sue the district if the measure passes, because he contends that it would violate the rules that govern the district’s school-construction-bond program.

Mr. Cortines said autonomy for the schools’ new managers would be essential for their success, but he acknowledged that getting around the teachers’ union contract “would be problematic.”

Still, he said, he would force the union’s hand if necessary to give him more flexible “thin contracts” for the schools slated for new management.

Ms. Flores Aguilar, meanwhile, said if the resolution has the effect of weakening the UTLA, “that would be a good thing.”

“I think our teachers’ union has been the biggest barrier and impediment to reform,” she said. “I just want a progressive teachers’ union.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2009 edition of Education Week as Proposal Would Open Up Management of L.A. Schools

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