Reimagine LAUSD

Every couple of years, it seems, there's another movement to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District. Often, this is tinged with Valley secessionism. But it's also a rational response to a school district this byzantine, its borders following no sensible outline, its bureaucracy entrenched and out of touch, its politics fraught, its failures legion.

Fought by the district and its unions, breakup efforts never succeed, in part because the Solomonic process of carving up L.A. Unified would be so long and disruptive. Who owns which campuses? How to share the brutal burden of teachers' retirement packages? And state law sets out its own daunting hurdles.

Strange to say, though, L.A. Unified has of late been undergoing a slow-motion breakup on its own. Call it organic rather than organizational. And rather than threatening the district, it hints at a tempting if unconventional vision for delivering education.

Blame -- or praise -- the charter movement's takeoff. It took 13 years for the school board to approve its first 100 charter schools. Less than two years later, the number of approved charters is at 144. They now make up one of every six schools in L.A. Unified, educating 7% of its students. Adding the 17 charters recently funded by philanthropist Eli Broad, the number surpasses 160, and will blossom from there. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has a cluster of low-performing schools to improve, and UCLA recently announced that it would open branches of its successful quasi-public elementary school in low-income neighborhoods.

Within the next several years, a substantial number of L.A. Unified's students may well migrate to such outside schools.

Losing students causes real financial heartburn for public schools. Most of the money a district gets for each student follows that child to a charter; the district retains a small sum for oversight and other services. Yet the district still has its fixed administrative costs, and, depending on how many students remain in each grade, public schools might have to hire just as many teachers while enrolling fewer students to pay for them.

That's the history, and the conventional thinking. What's needed here is a fresh vision, a reimagining of the Los Angeles Unified School District in which it wouldn't disappear or lose out as charters grow. On the contrary, if district leaders encouraged and helped manage that growth, they could also map the future of a functioning public school system.

Right now, the district is staggering under multiple burdens. It's considered a failing district under the No Child Left Behind Act. Its middle schools pass kids along even if they have little grasp of the required material; its high schools are too big and unsafe, and they lack qualified teachers in math and science. Far too many students drop out, and far too many of those remaining get low test scores and graduate unready for work or college. Its disadvantaged students need more resources in a state that spends less money per student than most.

Here's one possible scenario for the district: Invite charters and other groups to take over your struggling middle and high schools and infuse them with new energy as well as private money. Focus instead on what you do well: educating young children.

Middle school is where well-run charters have routinely outperformed their public counterparts. Charter high schools also are safer than many L.A. Unified schools, provide college-prep curriculum to all or most students and graduate more of them. (Charters won the district's past two Academic Decathlons.) The district has been far more effective with its elementary schools, which overall have shown an impressive rise in test scores but are in danger of being forgotten in the rush to fix secondary schools.

L.A. Unified also has a limited number of outstanding middle and high schools, such as the Francisco Bravo and King Drew medical magnet schools. There's no reason the district should lose schools that work well. But a small number of successful middle and high schools don't need full divisions at district headquarters to govern them. There's every reason to put them on a charter model, giving them near-autonomy while providing administrative assistance and making sure they're held accountable for continuing good results.

By working proactively with charter organizations and other outside groups, district leaders could take a role in shaping the array of new alternative schools so that it benefits students most and helps reduce central bureaucracy in a reasoned, orderly manner. With far fewer schools, most of them elementary, L.A. Unified could narrow the number and range of urgent issues that need reform at one time -- the elementary schools are still far from excellent -- and focus its efforts more effectively.

As schools improve and options increase, parents who now feel that they have no choice but expensive private schools might return to the district, whether in charters or regular public schools. Either way, the district would get more money to help with administrative costs. Families would get both the innovation of charters and the stability of a public school system.

That last point is an important one, because, for all their charms, charters are not the answer to all that ails education. Charter schools can demand a certain level of student behavior and parent involvement; the parents drawn to them are already fairly savvy and involved. That combination alone would tend to result in higher test scores. Conventional public schools, by contrast, have to take everyone. Should a charter fail, decide to close or "encourage" its low-achieving students to leave, who picks up the pieces without a public system?

Any effort to reinvent the district's mission would require the aid and cooperation of the California Charter Schools Assn. The group's leaders would have to push charter operators toward opening the middle and high schools the district needs in a coordinated way. But all reform of the district is complicated, and charters plainly have much to offer. Parents have warmed to the promise of safer, more rigorous education and are voting with their feet: One charter operator with several L.A. schools has a waiting list of 6,000 children.

The future can still belong to L.A. Unified if its leaders dare to grasp an identity that values success above protecting entrenched structures. Or they can sit tight and bemoan the breakup beneath their feet.

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