A Watershed Moment Is Here for the Public Schools of L.A.

It’s a time of change for the Los Angeles Unified School District, as new leaders come into office in both the school board and the teachers union this week and the district prepares to pick its fourth superintendent in a decade. These important developments occur at a time when many parents are frustrated. Increasing numbers of children are falling below grade level. More employers are questioning the quality of LAUSD graduates. Public support for the schools is declining. All these sorry trends will continue without dramatic change in the board, the unions and, particularly, the district’s unresponsive bureaucracy.

Turning around the nation’s second-largest district requires that the board pick a visionary and resilient superintendent who demands higher student achievement and refuses to accept failure without consequence in the classroom. Teachers, administrators and students must be held to performance standards. Staff members, including top managers, must be vigorously evaluated.

The person who replaces the retiring Sid Thompson also should push for the spread of LEARN. This school reform--the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now--is beginning to show results on most campuses where it has been implemented, greatly encouraging both teachers and parents.

Clearly a commitment to results must begin with the selection of the next superintendent. First of all, the district should undertake a nationwide search for the best person available. Anything short of that would further erode the school board’s credibility and ultimately would undercut the person selected.


There also can be no appearance of a political deal. Insiders should have no lock on this job. The position of superintendent is one that must go to the man or woman best qualified to change a massive bureaucracy with an eye toward what is best for the students. What is best for the students is not necessarily what is best for the perpetuation of union or bureaucracy interests. The next superintendent must be driven by a zeal to bring the very best people to the key administrative jobs in the district and resist pressures to fill jobs on the basis of cliques or ethnic connections.

Outsiders should not be ruled out because the last outsider, Leonard Britton, quit not long after he was brought in nearly a decade ago after a successful stint in Miami. Britton faced a major disadvantage in that the Los Angeles school board wouldn’t let him choose his own management team. He was forced to depend on resentful competitors who had been passed over for the top job. The lesson from that debacle is clear: The district’s institutional culture won’t change if only the superintendent is changed. The next superintendent needs the latitude to select his or her own management staff.

The new board president is expected to be elected Monday. The position rotates, and Jeff Horton, a former teacher, is next in line to assume the helm from the hard-working Mark Slavkin. To encourage progress, the next president will need to hold the board and district employees accountable. He or she must challenge racial politics and disruptive micro-managing by some board members who pay more attention to a single principal than to the larger principles of education.

No reform can take place in the school district without the cooperation of United Teachers-Los Angeles. The powerful teachers union elects the majority of school board members and heavily influences how teachers relate to their jobs and each other.

The successor to the capable Helen Bernstein is Day Higuchi. The union’s primary mission is protecting teachers, but if UTLA can improve the quality of teaching, obviously the quality of overall education in the district will improve. All unions--including the teachers’, principals’ and support employees'--need to convince members of the importance of performance and accountability standards with teeth.

A new superintendent, a new board president and a new union leader can accomplish great change from the top down if this triumvirate truly collaborates to improve the schools. The right leadership will boost student achievement and restore public confidence. Bad leadership could worsen the exodus of schoolchildren and prompt even more voters to embrace either a breakup of the huge district or vouchers that would drain public education in Los Angeles. There are fine schools, inspiring teachers and good administrators in the LAUSD. But not enough. The status quo is indefensible. There are fine schools, inspiring teachers and good administrators in the LAUSD. But not enough. The status quo is indefensible.