School Choice & Charters Opinion

What Would A Decentralized L.A. School Network Look Like?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 17, 2015 3 min read
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In recent posts, I laid out the case for turning the Los Angeles Unified School District into autonomous networks of schools and creating political winners in the process. My co-authors and I had recommended the idea in our book, Learning from L.A., and, in light of a recent proposal to break up the school district, reconsideration of the autonomous network idea is timely.

If groups of schools gained autonomy, what would LAUSD become? It would still be the public school district for Los Angeles and the other municipalities where its schools are located, but it would operate more as a hybrid organization than a hierarchy.

An Operating School District

First and foremost, LAUSD would be an operating school district. It would run some schools directly. Others would be run by charters, CMO’s, groups of teachers, by university partners, or the teachers union. Like a public pension fund or a private investment trust, it would authorize the best schools it could, and it would nurture and grow schools.

“Portfolio of schools” has been applied to this idea, but that phrase has picked up negative political baggage associated with outsourcing and for-profit providers. I think that’s the wrong image and an inaccurate description.

The network idea is more bottoms-up: groups of schools, geographic or not, that want to work together. They build capacity and then gain permission for autonomous operation from the district.

LAUSD would retain oversight capability, and it would have sufficient power to alter or deny network agreements and restructure low-performing networks. But it would not be a “day trader” opening and closing schools because of test score dip or rise; it would operate more as an urban farmer. (It’s interesting to recall that the Public School Choice program quickly morphed into an effort built around cooperation and assistance rather than competition.)

All the schools would have the same accountability rules for outcomes. The data systems for all schools and networks would be compatible. They wouldn’t have to be the same system, just operate on the same data conventions and specifications.

Autonomous networks would be reviewed periodically, perhaps every five years in an examination that was paired with accreditation. But the district would retain no managerial or operating authority over the autonomous schools or the schools within them.

An Incubator of New Schools

Second, LAUSD would be an incubator of new schools and educational practices. In this way, charters could better serve as research and development laboratories for the larger district, one of the intentions that the founders of the charter movement had for them. Partnerships with universities and charters could be built around innovation rather than routine service delivery or rudimentary professional development; those would be the functions of the autonomous networks.

Collaboration with private, for-profit organizations might become beneficial rather than toxic. Think, for a moment, how the ill-fated relationship between Apple, Pearson, and LAUSD might have worked if the arrangement was designed to develop and test new modes of learning instead of imposing an inadequately developed system at an impossible scale.

Quality Control Agency

Third, LAUSD would become the quality control agency for public schooling in Los Angeles. Consistent with the requirements of the state Local Control Accountability Plan, it could monitor the development and execution of plans before handing them off to the county office, as the statute requires.

Real accountability means good metrics and going beyond them. Creating the conditions for active learning and borrowing of best practices from school to school, from teacher to teacher, is much different from finding a perfect curriculum and mandating everyone to use it. Real accountability is as much process as it is an endpoint rating.

A Timely Issue

To do all this, the district needs a blueprint, which it doesn’t have. Ray Cortines wrote a detailed decentralization plan when he was interim superintendent 15 years ago, which would be a good starting point.

It needs a way of getting the civic elite, which favors charters, in the same room with the teachers union, which doesn’t.

Most importantly, the district needs to propose enabling legislation based on the network idea. If it can’t articulate where it wants to go, someone else will.

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.