What new L.A. schools chief Michelle King needs to do now

Though she has worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District for 38 years, Michelle King hasn't had many opportunities to voice a public opinion about its schools, or to lead them in new directions. As a high-ranking administrator — the second-in-command under the two previous superintendents — it was her job to help carry out the initiatives of others. She is known for her ability to get along with people, whether they are strongly pro- or anti-school reform or somewhere in between — a necessary skill for high-level survival in such a contentious and often polarized district.

But now, as L.A. Unified's newest superintendent, King will need to be more than just cooperative and collegial; to succeed in such a troubled district, she'll have to be a strong leader, willing to set an agenda and speak forcefully on behalf of students. Her days in the shadows are over, and not much is known yet about her ability and willingness to take on the teachers union or the school board or the reform movement. King will undoubtedly do a better job of listening than her predecessor John Deasy did during his tumultuous administration. “Collaboration” appears to be her favorite word, based on her meeting with The Times editorial board Thursday. But at times she's going to have step up and do a Deasy: take an unpopular position and stick to it in the face of heated criticism.

King has a sterling reputation as an educator and administrator. She is widely perceived as committed to student welfare, and she's obviously intelligent and capable. Furthermore, there are clear advantages to having come up through the district — where she was a student, a parent, a teacher and an administrator. She has a deep understanding of L.A. Unified, right down to the classrooms. She is aware of the complications and difficulties of running the nation's second-biggest school district, a massive but underfunded organization serving mostly low-income, often non-English-speaking students.

King speaks eloquently about some of the necessary improvements — raising graduation rates while also raising academic standards so that more students are doing at least passably well in college-prep courses. But her plans for achieving those goals are somewhat vague, and the specific ideas she considers innovative, such as single-sex schools, lack the imagination and dimension needed.

Other goals — science education in elementary schools, more intensive reading programs in the earliest grades — are laudable but expensive, and it's unclear how L.A. Unified, already teetering on a financial precipice, will find the money for them.

Speaking of funding, King also will have to grapple with the fact that the district's unusually generous benefits program for its employees is among the factors affecting its long-term financial picture. The district's unions are powerful and vociferous, and certainly hard-working teachers and other staff don't deserve any diminishment in their compensation, but unpopular choices are going to have to be made. King shares Deasy's belief that teacher tenure is granted too quickly and that ineffective teachers must go (though she would try harder to coach those teachers to proficiency). But if she tries to act on those beliefs, she will find that her collaborative nature takes her only so far.

King advocates phasing in new programs, which is often wise. Research generally backs the slow-and-steady approach. Deasy was too often bent on quick implementation of sweeping programs. Remember the iPad debacle? But sometimes, urgency is needed.

For instance, King shares the school board's concerns about the private foundation-led initiative to dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the district, which would further reduce its already declining enrollment and deepen its financial woes. But this is not an issue on which she can move slowly; parents are not likely to wait for incremental improvement when it comes to making decisions about their children's education.

King is obviously capable. But we'd urge her to keep this much in mind: The problems at L.A. Unified are huge and many of the players who must be involved in finding solutions are strongly resistant to change. What will define King as a leader will be her willingness to identify the moments that call for taking a big risk.

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 15, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "What L.A. Unified needs now" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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