Group Unveils L.A. School Reform Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Culminating an intense, six-month effort, a coalition of business, civic and education leaders have unveiled a plan to reform the Los Angeles Unified School District, proposing a system of rewards and assistance for educators and shifting much of the power over public education from downtown bureaucrats to principals, parents and teachers.

The preliminary plan, drafted by the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now (LEARN), was sent Thursday to the group's 632 trustees--a cross-section of academic, religious and business leaders--who will be seeing the reform agenda in its entirety for the first time.

Leticia Quezada, president of the Los Angeles School Board, applauded the plan but expressed concerns over its cost and the time needed to put it into action.

"I think it's a fine plan. It's got a lot of potential," she said. "I think the best part is that there's been input from all the interested parties in the school district and some consensus. . . . That gives it a leg up."

LEARN, headed by former Assembly Majority Leader Mike Roos, compiled the plan from reports by seven task forces that began work in January. The draft must be approved by the trustees before a final version is presented to the Los Angeles Board of Education for a vote in December or January, according to officials. LEARN officials hope that if the plan is adopted it can begin by August.

The wide-ranging plan would overhaul the administration of the nation's second-largest school system, setting specific educational goals and making those closest to the learning process accountable for its outcome.

"The entire school district will be involved in this movement," the document says. "The district will evolve from a bureaucracy that controls into a system that actively nurtures and facilitates school-level reform."

The plan calls for a reduction of downtown bureaucracy, allowing schools more control over spending, hiring and teaching. Schools would be given money based on the number and special needs of its students. It also recommends making principals primarily accountable for a school's performance and direction.

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Additionally, parents would join students, staff and community leaders in tailoring educational plans to an individual school's student population, focusing on goals ranging from improving attendance to increasing parental involvement.

But with more power would come increased accountability. Principals would be hired under three-year contracts that would allow for early removal if deemed necessary, and they would be evaluated each year based on their schools' achievement and how well they collaborate with staff, students, and members of the community.

A system would also be established to reward success and trigger "intervention" when teachers, principals or district supervisors perform poorly. Annual surveys would be used to assess employee performance and a school's goals.

For example, a school that has exceeded its stated goals may be rewarded with a fellowship or additional school equipment. Teachers recognized by their peers for strong leadership may be given awards or allowed to advance up a career ladder that would pay them more money for additional duties.

But when a school fails to meet its goals, a three-step intervention process would begin. It would start with district efforts to resolve the problem and culminate with the possible transfer of the principal or teacher if his or her performance is rated unsatisfactory by a significant number of parents and school employees. No such action could be done without due process, the report emphasized.

Educators and officials throughout the school district praised the plan as innovative. But several cautioned that it would be difficult to implement such massive change and they questioned how the financially beleaguered district could fund all the proposed reforms.

"My major problem is that it hasn't been costed out," said Helen Bernstein, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles and a member of LEARN's executive board. "In a year when there's been tremendous cutbacks, there's going to have to be some balance between restoring things that have been cut and funding new programs. (But) I think it can be done."

LEARN officials have said the reforms may not cost the district extra except in the case of training parents, faculty and school staff to familiarize them with the new goals and structure. A training academy would be created to offer orientation programs; officials say foundation grants could be sought to help cover the costs.

Bernstein said she particularly supports proposals to decentralize district powers, to fund schools based on the number and needs of students and to allow teachers to have more control over their jobs.

Quezada added that for the plan to work the district must overcome the skepticism of parents who believe they have been shut out of the educational process.

"Some people will be in a hurry to implement restructuring plans at the expense of leaving parents behind," she said. "I'm not willing to do that. I just hope people have the patience to give parents enough time to buy into the process."

The ultimate goal of the plan is to improve learning and enhance students' chances of succeeding in the work force. To accomplish those goals, the draft calls for a number of measures, including bringing social services to campuses, establishing core studies all students must master and having youths prepare career plans.

The idea of choice would also be instituted, with the plan calling for the district to begin planning a system that would allow families to choose which public schools their children attend. Because schools would be funded according to the number of students, there would be a financial incentive for schools to develop innovative programs to attract pupils.

Allan Odden, a USC professor who specializes in educational finance and policy, said that in a revamped system that allows each school to decide the direction of its educational program, choice is only fair.

"If they let teachers decide what the nature of the school will be," Odden said, "then you ought to give parents and students the choice of what kind of school they go to."

He said the plan reflected efforts by private industry to increase efficiency by decentralizing authority. But change, he cautioned, is never easy.

"If you've been socialized to behave in a hierarchy and now somebody says start making your own decisions, it's a fundamental change," Odden said. "It's going to be very, very hard."

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