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A Modern School District

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The next six weeks will tell the story of whether the Los Angeles school board is capable of bold action to reform its schools.

A resolution offered by board members Yolie Flores Aguilar, Richard Vladovic and Monica Garcia Monica Garcia would "invite operational and instructional plans from internal and external stakeholders" for each of the 50 new school physical plants that are to be completed in the next several years.

But functionally it does more: it provides a concrete organizational process that deepens an already existing trend toward offering variety and choice in public schooling. LAUSD already has the largest number of schools using innovative operating practices of any public school district in the country: 155 charters, 172 magnets, Locke High School operated by the Green Dot education management organization, the Mayor's Partnership, experiments with Pilot Schools, and a prototype of a quasi-independent network of charter schools. Approximately one in five students in Los Angeles attend these schools. The opening of new schools offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to extend this trend and organize the district around it.

Since the city charter reform in 1903, which established L.A.'s public schools in their current form, LAUSD has existed as a prime example of a complex public bureaucracy: vertically integrated, professionally driven, centrally controlled. The resolution to invite alternative academic and organizational school designs has the potential to move LAUSD from this historic bureaucratic form to a more modern network-of-schools design.

The transition from bureaucracy to network is both important and necessary. Every reform effort in the last 40 years has sought a way to move decisions closer to students and their families and break down the centralized command and control system. None has been successful.

The conventional wisdom is that the only way to transform an urban school system is to install an education czar backed by a powerful political figure, as was done in Chicago, New York, or Philadelphia, the other three largest districts in the country. The conventional wisdom holds that an urban school board is incapable of conceiving of a bold course of action, much less of enacting one.

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So, there is heavy political lifting ahead if the school board is to be successful, but also reason for optimism. There is a new alignment of political forces in play. Parent and community organizations have become a force to be reckoned with. For the first time the "choice and competition" theme much beloved by the political right has been appropriated by people and organizations traditionally associated with the sometimes radical left. There is an apparent coalition between grassroots social justice organizations and more business oriented non-profit education management organizations.

Employee unions are justifiably concerned. Real jobs are at stake. But United Teachers Los Angeles and the other employee unions face a stark choice. They can choose to continue a trench warfare of attrition, which they are losing as pressure for charters and alternatives builds. Or they can create a politics that redesigns the district.

Experience in other districts suggests that unions can play and their members can thrive in a world of diverse providers. I have long been an advocate of an expansive role for teachers and other school workers-including the students who are the real workers in the system-in the operation and governance of schools, but this means starting schools that are designed on much different principles than those of conventional hierarchies. If properly designed, the resolution for alternative school designs should give teachers and principals the ability to create schools tailored to the needs of their students and relief from the one-size-fits-all mandates that teachers rail against.

We will know how it goes soon enough. The three authors of the resolution bring a well-placed tone of righteous urgency. At the same school board meeting where the resolution was introduced, community groups protested the issuing of $250 truancy tickets, a reminder that state law compels students to attend school. It shouldn't require them to attend ones where they are likely to fail. Education delayed for them is justice denied.

Charles Kerchner is professor of education at Claremont Graduate University and co-author of Learning from L.A., the story of reform and change at LAUSD over the last five decades.

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About Claremont Graduate University Founded in 1925, Claremont Graduate University is one of the top graduate schools in the United States. Our nine academic schools conduct leading-edge research and award masters and doctoral degrees in 22 (more...)

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