Confusion instead of school reform

TODAY, THE STATE SENATE EDUCATION Committee takes up a bill intended to simplify the management, and therefore improve the accountability, of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Instead, the bill complicates the district's governance and therefore confuses its lines of responsibility. It's more properly described as an invitation to legislative interference than as a plan to reform the city's schools.

If the bill becomes law, the state would be dictating minutiae of local government in a way that no other local school district endures. The L.A. Unified school board has been criticized, rightly, for micromanaging district operations. It is no improvement to have the Legislature take over the micromanagement role from 400 miles away.

The situation was almost unavoidable once Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa contrived a Sacramento deal that distributes the job of running the schools among himself, the board, the superintendent, the teachers union and other mayors. The superintendent, for example, cannot fire principals who are doing a bad job — or rather, he can only if he gains the consensus of the teachers and parents at the school. Check that. He can only if he gains the consensus of the teachers and the parents at the school — and if he gets approval from the school board as well.

And so it continues as the bill divides up the specifics of budgeting (the superintendent gets most of the authority, the board some of it and the mayor some of it), construction of new schools, curriculum, contracts, the hiring and firing of the superintendent…. The legislation even goes so far as to specify that the overall board is entitled to a staff but that individual board members are not.

The mayor's office says the bill's wording will undergo changes as the legislative process continues. But as long as its main proposal stands — giving the board some important responsibilities, such as setting policy and approving the overall budget, but taking away its authority to enforce the decisions it makes — the bill cannot avoid dictating the details of how local schools are run.

The Legislature should be wary of setting such a precedent. Legislators can and should set broad outlines for governing schools — which in this case would mean placing control of the district's operations unambiguously in the mayor's hands. But if, like members of the school board, lawmakers find themselves torn by so many entrenched interests that they cannot manage a straightforward piece of governance policy and let the locals figure out the details, they are better off doing nothing.

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