School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Future for L.A. Schools: Little Hierarchies or Big Network?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 15, 2015 4 min read
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The idea of breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District has been around for a long time, and it’s arisen again. Recently, veteran superintendent and former state school board member Carl Cohn, wrote advocating breaking LAUSD into more nimble and manageable districts (see responses, too). It may well come to that.

Smaller hierarchies have advantages, as Cohn points out, but they are not the only plausible future for the nation’s second largest school district.

Consider, for a moment, the inherent operational and political advantages of network style organizations.

Operationally, large, integrated civil service hierarchies were idealized as the “good government” form of public schooling in the early 20th Century, and LAUSD became the most complete and best-developed example of this Progressive Era idea. And it just kept getting bigger.

But hierarchies are, well, so last century. 21st Century organizations understand the advantages of network design, where largely autonomous subunits link with one another to provide support, training, idea generation, and economies of scale.

Decentralization Through Networks

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. The Pilot schools in Los Angeles are a good example. Then let the schools link with one another in networks.

LAUSD’s history suggests movement toward a networked organization. For nearly half a century, the district has been trying to find a way to decentralize. For the last 20 years, it has been creating charter schools, and it now has more than any in the country.

Network style organizations represent a way to merge these two instincts. Five years ago, I thought that LAUSD would recognize the inherent logic of what it is becoming and organize around it. But the battle about and with former superintendent John Deasy intervened.

When my coauthors and I wrote Learning from L.A., we advocated systematically designing a school district around autonomous schools and networks as a way for LAUSD to rationalize charters, make them accountable, and at the same time import some of their organizing nimbleness. Some aspects of this have been incorporated in innovations such as the Belmont Zone of Choice and Pilot Schools.

Legislation Needed

The district needs to be legally enabled to follow this developmental path by creating legally autonomous networks of schools. Legal autonomy is important because it would remove the self-governing status from the favor or disfavor of an incumbent superintendent or school board. (This is what happened with the network idea in New York City, which was overly identified with the Bloomberg-Klein administration.)

The logical geographic form of an autonomous network would be a high school and its feeder schools, something like the clusters that the 1990s reform LEARN envisaged. But there are non-geographic forms, too. A cluster could form around a neighborhood or a pedagogical idea, like New Tech Schools, or Big Picture Schools. Functioning clusters already exist within some charter management organizations, and the autonomous cluster idea would provide them a link to LAUSD as a kind of holding company.

Given legal authorization, the District could entertain petitions to form autonomous clusters from teams of existing school managers. It could entertain petitions from charter management organizations. It could encourage and support groups of teachers to develop self-managing schools. There is experience about how to do this, and how not to, in the recent Public School Choice initiative.

Advantage, Network

Evolving LAUSD into autonomous operating units offers several advantages.

First, the networks could be smaller and more nimble than the proposed school districts. Historically, breakup plans envisaged five or six districts, creating a series of 100,000 student districts, a size thought to be well beyond the economies of scale for schools.

Second, borrowing from charters and other innovators could take place without requiring teachers and administrators to leave the school district, its employment security, fringe benefits, and pension plan. By privileging innovation in the charter sector—through philanthropic support—we have essentially told educators that to be an innovator you must first put your job and the financial security of your family on the line.

Third, autonomous networks could be created gradually, as people are capable and willing to form them. History tells us that trying to move all the pieces of LAUSD together is difficult, as the recent history of mandating that all high school students take a college-ready “A through G” curriculum reveals. The autonomous network idea can serve as an aspirational goal, one that allows training and development, team building, and commitment among the school staffs involved rather than ritual compliance with a central office mandate.

Fourth, the autonomous network idea would allow grassroots connection between schools and communities to deepen without the cumbersome governance arrangement of a multiplicity of elected school boards. Grassroots participation would also extend to immigrant families, whose members would not be eligible to run for office or to vote.

(Next: the politics of little hierarchies and big networks.)

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.