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CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : Lift the Education Code Dead Weight : Micromanagement of schools based on 7,745 pages of rules only stifles innovation and thus ensures the status quo.

Mark Slavkin is president of the Los Angeles Board of Education

With great fanfare, Gov. Pete Wilson announced last January that he would work to abolish the enormous California Education Code and replace it with a streamlined set of rules focused on student performance.

More recently, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin issued a bold challenge, proposing that school districts be granted greater flexibility in exchange for real accountability for boosting student achievement.

In the quiet following these exciting announcements, it has been reported that Wilson and Eastin are being pressured to back away from or scale back their original proposals. By succumbing so quickly to pressure from Sacramento special-interest groups, our leaders may be allowing a dysfunctional system to remain in place.

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Local control will be just a rhetorical slogan until politicians in Sacramento release their stranglehold and stop micromanaging our local schools.

The California Education Code is 7,745 pages of rules and regulations that govern our public schools. It is built upon a foundation of arrogance and distrust. It implies that the politicians in Sacramento know more than teachers and principals about how best to educate our students. It assumes that educators need to be controlled and regulated rather than empowered to do their jobs as true professionals.

It is important to understand the extent to which local schools are buried under a mountain of rules and controls. The Legislature and the governor enact the laws that constitute the 12-volume education code. Once all these rules are enacted, they must be interpreted, implemented and enforced. The appointed state Board of Education oversees the elected state superintendent of public instruction, who in turn manages the state Department of Education.

Each of the 58 California counties also has a county office of education run by a superintendent of schools and often a board of education. Within the counties are the 1,002 local school districts, each with a superintendent and elected governing board. Each district has discretion to make policies in many areas and negotiate specific workplace rights and responsibilities with employee unions.

This mountain of control, distrust and micromanagement stifles the very innovation we now need to help improve our schools. California’s system creates incentives based on compliance with rules rather than on the actual academic achievement of the students. Bureaucratic paperwork has been made more important than test scores, grades or any other measure of student performance. For example, districts must ensure that students in grades 1 through 3 spend no less than 50,400 minutes in school each year satisfying Sacramento bean counters, but need not guarantee that these students learn enough to meet our basic educational expectations.

By emphasizing rules and financial accounting over student outcomes, our state makes its priorities clear. Severe penalties, including state takeover, may be applied to districts that fail to adhere to prudent management of tax dollars. No similar system of accountability is in place for schools or districts where the students fail to learn.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, our exciting efforts under LEARN--the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now--are empowering local schools, providing greater autonomy and focusing on student achievement rather than on compliance with rules. The progress made in the first 192 LEARN schools has come in spite of the state’s rigid framework of rules. Through the hard work of dedicated teachers, principals, other school staff members and parents, LEARN schools are developing a new paradigm for school improvement while the old state-imposed structures still remain. Yet the school district is caught between its legal obligation to comply with existing state rules and our own commitment to doing things better. This has impeded and frustrated the work of our LEARN school communities.

The Legislature recently has made limited attempts to give relief to schools. The state’s charter school law allows up to 10 schools per district to achieve the level of local control, flexibility and accountability needed for all schools. Unfortunately, all efforts to expand the number of charter schools have so far been defeated in the Legislature. The Legislature’s ambivalence about charter schools suggests there is a tough road ahead to achieve reform on a systemic rather than pilot project basis.

In addition to funding lowered class sizes and repairing old school facilities, here are a few things the Legislature can do to help if it really wants to improve our educational system:

% Repeal the current state education code;

% Replace it with a simple and clear statement of what we expect all California students to know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school and include basic protection of student and employee rights, along with essential health and safety standards;

% Put in place a statewide framework for accountability that holds individual schools and school districts accountable for the academic performance of their students through rigorous monitoring and review of student achievement;

% Reduce the layers of political control and interference over our local schools by moving governance from Sacramento back to local communities.

I look to Wilson and Eastin to engage the Legislature on these issues and encourage bold action. The recent report by the Constitutional Revision Commission places many of these issues squarely before the Legislature. I hope that a coalition can be built to make these historic changes. It is clear to me that local efforts to better educate our children face an uphill battle until California’s system of governing schools is rebuilt from the bottom up.


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