School Choice & Charters Opinion

The ‘Slow Food’ Way of Breaking up L.A. Schools into Autonomous Networks

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 16, 2015 5 min read
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Urban school reform has featured “blow it all up” rhetoric usually matched with a hostile takeover by new management. By and large, it hasn’t worked.

Education revolutions may be romantic, but they most often fail, not just because the old institution strikes back, but also because revolutionary politics are not built to last or deliver the goods. That’s been the case in other cities, too, but is most assuredly the case in Los Angeles.

In my last post, I advocated gradually transforming the Los Angeles Unified School District into many autonomous networks: small groups of schools linked together for support and organizational development. I favored this approach over breaking up the district into five or six legally separate school districts.

My Claremont Graduate University colleague and former superintendent Carl Cohn has advocated breakup, and he’s not the first. Cohn points out that LAUSD may not have the capacity to undertake the conventional and necessary functions of a school district. As this past week’s Education Week story illustrates, the district has become a poster child on how not to introduce technology. It is possible that LAUSD has moved so far into diseconomies of scale that its size, alone, makes sustained improvement impossible.

No Breakup Coalition Likely

But the politics of breakup will not be brought forward by a consensus big-city coalition, at least I don’t think so. Breakup will be a wedge issue, just as mayoral control was: revolutionary, romantic, and failed.

My idea for gradually transitioning the district into autonomous networks is political “slow food.” Political slow food, like traditional French or classic Mexican cooking, is not revolutionary. Even the nouvelle renditions rest on traditions, and carrying some of those traditions forward allows something radical to emerge while delivering old flavors, or, in the case of education reform, holding a political coalition together.

As the last generation of Los Angeles school politics shows, it is fairly easy to build a winning political coalition on the school board, and to win a 4-3 vote to change direction. But it has proved impossible to sustain a ruling coalition. In the end, this churning political system produces no winners: temporary victories for the mayor, the teachers union, or for the incumbent superintendant, but no lasting institutional change.

A Winning Coalition

The autonomous network idea presents the opportunity to create a long-term winning political coalition.

First, it creates a way that charters can be something other than the opposition to the school district. The current arrangement between charters and the school district is not politically stable. As the numbers of school-age children continues to decline, competition between charters and district schools will intensify. (Last week the school board voted to create marketing brochures to counter those created by charters.)

Supporters of charter schools almost always fail to recognize that the freedom and flexibility those schools enjoy is a function of their exceptionality. Charter schools are inherently parasitic; they are dependent on the health of the host school district.

As long as there are only a few charters, they can open without causing much disturbance to the host district, and in times of increasing enrollment their fiscal impact is hardly noticed. Likewise, a charter can close, either for lack of enrollment or poor performance, and the host district can absorb the students easily.

However, when the percentage of charter schools becomes large, then increasing the flows of students to the charter sector decreases the capacity of the District to reform itself, and charter advocates lose one of their main political arguments, namely that they serve as a spur to reform for the traditional district. Moreover, if there were to be a substantial failure by a charter management organization, the District’s capacity to absorb students would be sharply limited.

Charters in the Networks

Networks of semi-autonomous schools would include charters, and the existence of networks would become one of the elements of required public oversight. Their interests would at least partly coincide with semi-autonomous schools still under district governance.

Second, there is a civic coalition to be built around a modern, 21st century form of organization and learning. People get excited about creating new, interesting schools regardless of how they are governed, as this Los Angeles Times column from Sandy Banks illustrates. They don’t get terribly energized by the every day work of running a bureaucracy. The autonomous network idea pushes the energized schools to the forefront. It creates a visible sense of movement within the school district.

This said, constructing autonomous network legislation would require addressing a number of tricky policy issues, which is why “slow food” politics are necessary.

First, who owns the land and buildings? LAUSD could retain ownership, lease the buildings to the autonomous network. Or a separate building authority could be created whose sole business would be real estate management.

Second, under what labor contract would teachers and other employees work? Given the historic “community of interest” test for determining bargaining units, it would make the most sense for each network to have its own contract or at least substantial work rule flexibility within a master contract.

Third, how are disputes between LAUSD and an autonomous network to be resolved? What happens if a group of schools wants autonomy and the district does not want to grant it? Or what happens if LAUSD revokes a network’s status (as it now does with charters) and the schools involved think the district’s actions are unreasonable?

Resolving them will take some time and creating a school district of autonomous networks would take time, and that’s okay. Like “slow food,” a measured, deliberative transition would produce a result that is both appetizing and politically digestible.

(Next: What would LAUSD become?)

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.