Can L.A. schools be saved?

Today, Coombs, Shaffer and Snell propose solutions to the problem of schools. Previously, they debated the Locke High School cock-upteacher tenure, the school board election and the merits of mayoral takeover.

Stop condemning teachers By Walter P. Coombs and Ralph E. Shaffer
Critics of our public schools cite two causes for alarm—low test scores indicating poor performance and a high dropout rate. They claim these are the result of a variety of factors but mostly due to ineffective teaching by poorly qualified teachers. Both are problems endemic in some geographic areas included within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

On the other hand, there are areas in this district where student performance is outstanding and exceeds the performance at charter schools. LAUSD's outstanding record in national academic decathlons, including recent ones, certainly demonstrates what can be accomplished by a public high school.

Most LAUSD schools that underperform draw from a population of low-income residents with high minority concentrations and little parental involvement in the educational process. Many students are the first in their family to attend a school where instruction is in the English language. While critics are outraged at the use of native tongues for instruction in conventional schools, they either remain silent or applaud such instruction as "innovative" when used in the charters.

Many low-performing students come from poverty-stricken families desperately seeking to cope with low wages and high prices while the children do not have enough to eat and where even the minimum costs are difficult to bear.

Other students come from single-parent homes or homes where one parent or a sibling is in jail. Others have undiagnosed medical or emotional problems largely overlooked by overworked school personnel.

To suggest a "one size fits all" idea such as charter schools or even "No Child Left Behind" contributes to the problem. What is accomplished in the long run if a charter school comes in, cherry-picks a student body, receives public school funding and shrugs its shoulders at the remaining problems?

Underperforming schools need more than platitudes or a selective approach. Some effort needs to be made to address the underlying problems that prevent students from staying in school or performing up to predetermined standards.

Whether these social problems will be solved is debatable, but condemning teachers as the villains—as school board members, the district and others have done—is not the solution.

The major problem as far as Los Angeles is concerned is not that we don't have solutions—the files are full of studies and we have competent experts who have made recommendations—but there has been no way to stir the sluggish bureaucratic attitude of opposition to change on the part of the district. Politically charged school board members, bound by their own strictures and plagued by petty infighting, are incapable of seeing the big picture and their role.

As far as teachers are concerned, perhaps the time has come to consider buyouts so that older teachers can retire gracefully and younger more energetic ones be inspired to enter the field.

Finally, that "innovation in the classroom," that charters so loudly proclaim (but that is not yet evident in most) ought to be encouraged in conventional classrooms.

Walter P. Coombs is professor emeritus of social sciences at Cal Poly Pomona, and Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.

Start teaching students By Lisa Snell
Most parents and students in Los Angeles Unified just want a safe school where their children will learn. Therefore, Walter and Ralph, the folks in charge of LAUSD need to figure out how to change "conventional classrooms" into high quality classrooms.

I contend that the best hope for LAUSD is to make their public schools stronger through competition with charters and other higher-performing public classrooms. The most expedient way to get low-performing Los Angeles schools up to speed is to restructure school financing to a "weighted student formula plan" where funding follows each child and is based on each child's individual needs. This would give kids a right of exit from their failing schools. It would also create a level playing field for charters and public schools in terms of school financing.

Under this type of school empowerment plan, kids are not required to attend their neighborhood school, especially if it is failing. Rather, they can pick any regular public or charter school in their district and take their education dollars with them. More students therefore means more revenues for schools. Furthermore, as the name suggests, the revenues are "weighted" based on the difficulty of educating each student, with low-income and special-needs kids commanding more money than smart, well-to-do ones. Public schools have to compete for funding, but the upside is that they have more control over it.

However, in order for principals to truly control their budgets, they must have more control over their staffing decisions. Therefore, collective bargaining reform is critical for the future success of Los Angeles Unified. Principals must be empowered to make decisions about their staff. They need dollars, not district-mandated staff positions. They need to decide at the school level how best to organize teachers and students. Work rules must be loosened to allow principals and teachers to negotiate what is best for students. In addition, principals need to hire based on student needs, not transfer rights.

Collective bargaining contracts can be reformed. Districts across the country are reforming their union contracts. There are several models which the superintendent, school board, and mayor can turn to in their quest to reform collective bargaining and give principals more autonomy over their schools.

Union locals in Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia have agreed to the implementation of limited changes in seniority rights in their respective districts. In addition, in places where public schools face severe competition from charter schools and school vouchers, labor rules are also changing. Robust competition is correlated with districts with more reasonable collective bargaining rules. In New Orleans, where 70% of students are enrolled in charters and the state recovery district, local school district, and local charters are competing for teachers and students; these schools are operating without any type of union contract. Similarly, in Milwaukee, where school vouchers, charter schools, and public schools all compete for students and teachers, the union contract is streamlined with significantly fewer work rules and no seniority bumping rights.

In Los Angeles, we have our own model that the district should follow. The union and the Los Angeles school board negotiated a "memorandum of understanding," [pdf] with the school board for the Belmont pilot schools to operate as a "zone of choice" with autonomous schools. This contract gives these schools "wider autonomy in areas such as curriculum, staffing, budget, professional development, and school calendars." Here is a radical idea: negotiate a contract that looks like the Belmont contract and apply it to all school in Los Angeles Unified.

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

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