School Reform Plan Faces Tall Hurdles : Education: The LEARN project promises fundamental change. But many are skeptical until more is known and because other plans have gone sour.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Today, the Los Angeles School Board is expected to put its stamp of approval on a plan to reform the city's troubled schools, ushering in what proponents hope will be a new era of higher standards and improved accountability.

But less than four months before the project begins, it faces a host of obstacles. Many of them reflect the dilemmas that have turned the nation's second-largest school system into the public's whipping boy.

The proposed reforms--developed by a coalition of business, education and community leaders known as LEARN--would fundamentally change the way the huge centralized school system operates. Individual campuses would assume power to decide everything from who repairs a broken window to which books teachers use in class. Principals and teachers would be rewarded--or reprimanded--as campus achievement rose or fell.

If the plan is approved, the school board will begin putting the reforms into effect at about 30 of the district's 650 schools this summer. To succeed, the board will have to overcome such problems as:

* Teachers, parents and school principals throughout the sprawling, 700-square-mile district say they know little beyond the vaguest outlines of the changes they are expected to embrace.

* Although the plan would give each school the authority to make almost all budget decisions, it will be at least another year before the district's outmoded computer system is expanded to give schools that freedom.

* School board members, who profess support for the concept of decentralization as espoused by LEARN, have demonstrated little willingness to hand over the reins of school management. Already, board members are jockeying to have schools in their own districts selected to pilot the program, quibbling over details of implementation and publicly expressing doubts that enough parents will get behind the reforms to make the process work.

* The very notion of "reform" draws sneers from many parents because so many past reform plans have withered and died without making a dent in such problems as rising dropout rates and falling student achievement.

LEARN President Mike Roos, a former Democratic state assemblyman, said he does not believe that such impediments will derail the proposals, developed over the past two years by the 600 trustees of LEARN. (The acronym stands for Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now.)

Roos believes that LEARN--propped up by a massive public relations campaign and backed by some of the city's most powerful business leaders--can avoid the fate suffered by the district's past reform plans.

"This is backed by public consensus and not just the good intentions of the education bureaucrats," Roos said last week as he prepared to deliver petitions bearing the signatures of more than 78,000 LEARN supporters to the school board.

"We've got people involved who have their fingers on the (political) buttons that can deliver the resources and support needed to make this work, and they're willing to manipulate those buttons on demand," he said.

Many of LEARN's recommendations have been tried before. Others have been suggested, only to be waylaid by political feuds or financial constraints.

In 1988, district staff members developed a 370-page plan to improve education by empowering teachers and strengthening curriculum. It was hailed by the school board as the beginning of a new era in education, then faded from view.

In 1989, the board voted to spend $431 million over 10 years to make many LEARN-like changes at low-achieving schools. But the program--which includes budget authority for local schools, better training for teachers and principals, and incentives for schools that improved student performance--has been stalled by the district's financial crisis.

In 1990, the school board tried to set formal goals for student achievement but gave up when board members could not agree on whether suggested goals were too ambitious or not ambitious enough.

Roos contends that his group has learned from these failures.

LEARN officials spent more than $600,000 on a series of media spots and a direct-mail campaign to solicit support from the public, generating in two weeks more than 36,000 petitions with 78,500 signatures--most of them from the San Fernando Valley and South-Central Los Angeles.

That outpouring, Roos said, will keep the heat on the school board to follow through with the reform project, expected to take more than five years to reach every school.

"This is not something (board members) can take a vote on and walk away," he said.

But some education activists criticize the lobbying campaign as an effort to ramrod LEARN into place without subjecting its details to public scrutiny.

Joe Flores, chairman of the district's Mexican-American Education Commission, said many Latino parents--particularly those who are poor and immigrants--believe that they were shut out during the genesis of LEARN planning. By the time their opinions were sought, the framework was in place, said Flores.

A coalition of eight Latino community groups will ask the school board today to postpone its vote on LEARN, contending that the plan does not give parents enough power at their children's schools.

And they complain that although LEARN boasts of consensus building and inclusion, only two members of its executive board and about 20% of its 600 trustees are Latino. By contrast, enrollment in the 640,000-student school district is 64% Latino.

Although Roos has been making the rounds of civic and community groups for more than a year, last month--at a series of community forums held in each of the school board's seven districts--was the first time most parents and teachers got a firsthand look at the proposals. Linda Rosen, a parent who attended a meeting at Castle Heights Elementary on the Westside, complained that she heard more "propaganda" than the nuts and bolts of how LEARN will function.

*

Schools will be asked to volunteer to join LEARN's pilot campuses this summer, where the reforms will be tested. So far, few school principals have expressed interest.

"We'd have to be stupid to volunteer for a pig in a poke," said Eli Brent, head of the union that represents the district's 1,600 principals and other administrators. "We're excited about it based on what we know, but that's not much."

Lingering rancor over the once-threatened strike by teachers also threatens to jeopardize the collaboration needed to make the process work, particularly the delicate power-sharing relationship between teachers and administrators.

Brent said he has advised principals not to offer their schools to test the reforms until it is clear how the new teachers contract will be interpreted by the district.

Some provisions of that contract give teachers more authority over class assignments--contradicting the intent of LEARN to give principals almost total control of school management.

Some parents say they have been disappointed too many times to trust the district to make good this time. LEARN, they suspect, is merely an Establishment effort to hold off community pressure to break the district into smaller school systems.

"This might just be to . . . make it look like people are really doing something to counter the push to dismantle the system," said Wendy Ziegler Marsh, mother of a student at Overland Avenue Elementary in West Los Angeles.

Ultimately, the biggest problem facing LEARN may be that a public hungry for change expects too much, too quickly--or that LEARN offers too little, too late.

"People are starving for an answer right now, wondering: 'What am I going to do with my child if I can't afford private school?' " said Marsh. Even if Roos and his group overcome the political bickering and the public distrust, there is little LEARN can do to dispel the specter of campus shootings and the mounting financial problems that deprive classrooms of books and send parents fleeing from the public schools.

"LEARN is not going to reduce class size, it's not going to build more schools, it's not going to create more counselors or nurses, and those things have to be done," said board member Jeff Horton.

"What this plan will do is demonstrate to the populace that the district is willing to make changes in the way it does things in an effort to improve.

"And the response from the public has to be: 'We will try to see that California makes a commitment to raise the deplorable level of (school) funding so that we really can meet children's needs.' "

Times staff writers Stephanie Chavez and Lois Timnick contributed to this story.

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