What if students want out?

PoliticsImmigrationUniversity of CaliforniaLos Angeles Unified School DistrictMichael BloombergNathaniel HawthorneJohn Marshall

Today, Snell and Tokofsky weigh options for L.A. Unified students enrolled in low-performing schools. Later in the week, they'll discuss vouchers, breaking up the school district and more.

Make schools compete for studentsBy Lisa Snell
To answer the question, let's consider how the Los Angeles Unified School District serves its customers. Overall, L.A. Unified has seen improved test scores districtwide, especially in early grades. Yet this has not been true for every school. Many schools do not meet even the minimum requirements of basic academic achievement for their students. Consider Evelyn Thurman Gratts Elementary School in Los Angeles. In 2007, 13% of second-graders and 8% of third-graders were proficient in reading. Students at schools like Gratts need to have an exit available to higher-quality schools. At elementary, middle and high schools with poor academic records, L.A. Unified has not provided customers with real alternatives to low-performing public schools.

The current demand for choice also demonstrates the desperation of many students to exit Los Angeles public schools. Local charter schools have long waiting lists and must hold knuckle-biting emotional lotteries to determine which students get a golden ticket. Similarly, Los Angeles magnet schools represent a frantic system of savvy parents vying for too few spots in higher-performing schools.

L.A. Unified doesn't have to continue to subject students to low-performing schools.

First, L.A. Unified should consider taking a page from New York City and adopt a "fair student funding" approach to schools. In this model, public-school dollars are attached to children, and public schools compete for the dollars and enrollment. Children are free to enroll in any public school in the district. Principals have real control over their budgets and discretion over how funds are spent within their individual schools.

In New York, principals now control close to 90% of student dollars. Public schools that continue to fail students are closed or taken over by higher-performing schools within the district. Under this type of school empowerment program, a principal at a school like Gratts elementary, where 76% of students are English language learners, would be free to spend school resources on more intensive programs for English language learners. In San Francisco, which has a school empowerment program similar to New York's, several elementary schools have built their reputations on helping English learners become proficient in reading and language arts.

Second, L.A. Unified should encourage new school capacity in neighborhoods with low-performing schools by continuing to support and replicate high-quality charter schools. It should consider allowing charter schools to operate the district's lowest performing schools in the respective campuses' current facilities. Charter schools should be invited to help improve these chronic low-performers.

Finally, L.A. Unified should take advantage of private school capacity and offer students in low-performing schools Pell Grant scholarships to attend any Los Angeles private school with enough capacity. A 2007 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, "Feeling the Florida Heat? How Low Performing Schools Respond to Voucher and Accountability Pressure," found that schools faced with pressure from Florida's voucher program changed their instructional practices in meaningful ways. These changes led to improvements in public schools' test scores.

L.A. Unified needs more choice — more public school choice, more charter schools and a basic right of exit to any public, public charter or private school.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.


L.A. isn't New York or San Francisco By David Tokofsky

Lisa is absolutely right that L.A. Unified has more choices for parents than other districts in California and perhaps even the United States. In fact, L.A. Unified — with roughly 100-plus magnet and 100-plus charter schools, and other options such as No Child Left Behind transfers, Schools for Advanced Studies and the Permit With Transfer program — ends up with more students, both as a percentage of the district and in raw numbers, choosing other than their neighborhood schools than Long Beach, San Diego, Chicago or Boston public schools. San Francisco and New York pale in comparison to L.A. Unified.

In fact, students in L.A. Unified have so many options that The Times' great series on dropouts in 2006 found that rather than most of them disappearing onto the streets like they do in other districts such as New York and Chicago, the students reappear in a veritable plethora of high school options schools. These include continuation and adult schools, independent study and non-traditional small settings such as Community Day Schools. It is indeed a "Blithdale Romance," as Nathaniel Hawthorne called the utopian village of Brook Fram, to criticize L.A. Unified for a lack of choices.

Citing New York school revolutions, charming Chinese dual-language programs in San Francisco, weighted funding formulas instead of more funds for schools, and ultimately ivory-tower visions of vouchers, distracts us and the thinkers of the Reason Foundation from the more fundamental work needed to improve Los Angeles' city schools. New York is not Los Angeles. Foundation-funded solutions for a few fancy schools in New York do not breed success here in Los Angeles. We in Los Angeles have tried to imitate others to no avail in the past, as we chased Miami-Dade in 1980s, Seattle and Ohio districts in the '90s and are now held up to New York.

I have visited these districts and in particular find New York's public schools disturbingly unsound. As a parent and award-winning urban teacher, I found a comprehensive high school in Brooklyn, far from the Manhattan projects of the dreamers, still with a police substation with more than 20 officers. The curriculum across the district was a Maoist's dream of a thousand flowers blooming: inequitable from borough to borough and neighborhood to neighborhood. No wonder the proud New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg could only take the aspiring L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to visit a school he defined as a success: Park Slope Elementary, a school in a gentrified neighborhood with homes valued upward of $2 million. The photo opportunity did not mask the Potemkin Village of politics.

I have toured the immigrant "success or model" schools of New York's reforms. They do not parallel the hard demographics of Los Angeles' poverty and population, nor do they show the progress L.A. Unified has made, as Lisa cites, in elementary scores. I am glad Lisa used Gratts as her extreme from which students and parents must escape. Gratts gives us data from which to reflect honestly about the shortcomings as well as progress for L.A. Unified. Lisa writes that only 13% of second graders are proficient in reading at this Ellis Island elementary school. By fifth grade, students at this school of the poorest immigrants in America move (with about one-third less school funding than New York) from the 13% Lisa cited as proficient to 24% proficient, or University of California pathway. An additional 32% of fifth graders read at the basic level, totaling 56% of Gratts children at least moving dramatically toward our four-year UC system pathways. Isn't it unreasonable to call that a failure, low performing or "abysmal"? If I could lose half the weight I wanted to, I hope that President Bush wouldn't call me a failure under the No Child Left Behind Act. Some of the charter schools nearby do not progress at that rate.

Kicking L.A. Unified's work and calling for charters everywhere does not allow us to look at the numbers and progress honestly and decide what really matters for students' learning.

In the week ahead, I hope our Dust-Up can be less polemical and more pragmatic as to what matters for teachers and kids to learn. The Times can help by documenting more successes here locally both in and around L.A. Unified so that we can replicate our local successes from traditional public schools to magnets and charters rather than transplanting ideas from far away.

We will need to realize that more funding matters — and stable funding matters too. Ask any parent who is paying nearly $30,000 a year at Harvard Westlake or the Brentwood School for their kids' education. Ask any superintendent being asked to cut 10 to 15% of their budget to meet Sacramento's funding drought. We will need to encourage more risk-taking by teachers and administrators, but base the risk-taking on accountable plans in addition to any charismatic site educators.

And above all, we need to expect more work from students, teachers and parents rather than thinking that the Earth is flat and the status quo is OK. We will need to be more competitive, demanding and, as the teachers say, "rigorous and relevant" if our schools are going to move empirically faster toward our expectations and ideals for our children.

David Tokofsky was an L.A. Board of Education member for 12 years. Before that, he taught social studies and Spanish at John Marshall High School for 12 years.

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