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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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