How L.A. school reformers can turn election wins into change
This commentary by Robin Lake and Paul Hill was originally published in the Los Angeles Daily News:
Last week’s election of two charter school supporters has tipped the Los Angeles Unified School District board to a reformist majority. School reformers are celebrating — with good reason. The campaign for change was brilliantly fought and much needed.
But victory will be for naught if the new board can’t build sustainable improvements.
The election makes it possible for charter schools to become an even more important tool in improving education for L.A.’s kids. But that’s only one part of the necessary and daunting work of dramatically improving the district. LAUSD faces, among other burdens, dismal student performance, unsustainable pension and health care costs, vitriolic politics, and shrinking enrollment.
Other reformers have tackled these challenges but didn’t leave behind lasting change.
Nearly six years ago, for instance, a reform-majority board hired Superintendent John Deasy. Deasy was hailed for his efforts to increase teacher quality and innovation — until, in order to facilitate reforms, he closed some under-enrolled and struggling schools and negotiated a less financially crushing union contract. Then status quo forces worked up enough fervor to unseat him, killing the innovations they had praised earlier.
This should be a cautionary tale for the new board. In a school district as vast and unforgiving as LAUSD, two or four years of a board majority may be enough time to enact reforms, but not enough time to sustain them until they’re effective.
If the newly elected majority wants to effect lasting change, it needs to do something that seems counterintuitive: give up control. The new board can’t succeed by issuing mandates or by preferring one approach to school improvement to the neglect of all others. To accomplish anything deep and lasting, and avoid having its actions wiped out with the swing of a pendulum, the new board must take a different approach.
• First, Deasy directed change from the top down. The new board instead should facilitate leadership by the neighborhood and community leaders who want better schools.
This election was won because different L.A. communities were given an authentic voice. The new board will succeed over the long term by continuing to heed those voices, listening to change-oriented grassroots leaders about what their communities need and helping them explain how particular schools will be improved.
• Second, the board must embrace multiple forms of public school choice. The rapid rise of charter schools in L.A., many of them among the country’s best, demonstrates a deep community preference for high-quality options. But the board won’t succeed by simply pushing for more charters regardless of the opposition.
The board’s job is to create more great choices and to support effective schools, no matter who runs them. It can do so both by chartering and by supporting district-run schools where parents and staff work together to improve teaching and learning. Achieving this goal requires vision and commitment from top district leaders and a real partnership with community and charter leaders.
• Finally, LAUSD should give all schools the deal that charter schools have: freedom to pursue different missions through different approaches. One form that freedom takes is flexibility in hiring. Allowing administrators to select teachers and teachers to select schools based on the alignment of their goals will attract the best new educators to L.A. schools, whether charter or district-run.
School leaders should be able to make changes in their schools as needed, and to keep and reward indispensable teachers. This requires funding all schools equitably so every school has a fair shot at hiring excellent teachers. And it means refraining from draining district-run schools to pay for central office initiatives, unsustainable health and pension benefits, or under-enrolled schools.
Freedom needs to go well beyond hiring if a school system as large as LAUSD is ever to truly innovate. As many schools as possible should be given the freedom and support to try new things and pursue collaboration. And school leaders, not remote central office bureaucrats, must decide how schools use money and what services they pay for.
This move to autonomy will have to be done carefully, and will require policy and financial investment from both the district and state. But it is the only viable path forward in a district that is too diverse for any single reform to benefit all students.
Trying to turn around LAUSD with top-down approaches from the board or central office is futile. The families and community leaders who fought for urgent change in the LAUSD school board should celebrate their well-earned victory, but they should also refuse to allow their new school board to make the same mistakes of the past.