In yet another tussle between the teachers union and the school reform movement, the Los Angeles Unified school board decreed last week that district administrators must obtain board approval before applying for any grants of more than $1 million, in order to ensure that they don't seek out grants that come with problematic strings. The idea is reasonable enough, but the way the new policy is written, it unnecessarily ties the hands of staff without necessarily protecting the district.
During the meeting, board member Richard Vladovic referred to a $50-million grant the district received requiring recipients to institute some form of merit pay and to include student test scores in teacher evaluations — two sore points with the union. Neither policy was in place when the district applied, and Vladovic's concern was that the grant might lead the district to make policy changes that hadn't been approved by the board. The 4-3 vote split along union-friendly versus reform-minded lines.
Supt. John Deasy, who clearly resents this intrusion into his autonomy, says the district doesn't have to change any policies because of the federal grant, though he acknowledges that it would have to give back some or all of the money if it eventually failed to meet the requirements. Deasy complains that the board's action makes the district look hostile to reform-minded grantors and might kill L.A. Unified's chances at future largesse. In any given year, the district generally has billions of dollars of grant money that would be affected by the new policy, most of it for construction.
Deasy's argument goes too far. It's fairly common for school boards to exert their
authority over grant applications to avoid conflicts of interest or a move in a dubious direction. We don't particularly favor anti-reform actions by the board, but there's no question that it has the right and responsibility to oversee any promises the district is making through its grant applications.
There are some practical concerns, though. L.A. Unified has no grant-writing department; this supplemental money comes from the efforts of staff who put in extra time and initiative on grants. In August, the school board decided to start meeting half as often — just once a month. But some grants have 45- to 60-day turnarounds, making it hard to get permission in time to write a good proposal. That puts quite a burden on the grant writers. The board should agree to hold emergency meetings when tight deadlines are involved. If the board wants to exercise this level of control, it should be willing to put in the work involved.
Meanwhile, why set the amount at $1 million? If a grant commits the district to an unacceptable promise, it's just as bad whether the amount is $10,000 or $10 million. The board should narrow the kinds of grants affected by this policy based not on the dollar amount but on the issues involved. For instance, it might choose to review all grants that could affect labor contracts, curriculum or school discipline. Chances are the board doesn't need to get involved in most of the construction grants, by far the bigger source of funding.