Rewriting the Three Rs

It’s a splendid day in the Los Angeles Unified School District when labor, charter schools, parents, neighborhoods and the school board align behind an inventive idea that benefits children. Sad to say, this is not one of those days. But it could be if, instead of ossifying their expectations, opposing parties devise a fair method of choosing how more than 50 new schools should be operated.

As expected, a novel suggestion for these schools was put on hold :a=latimes_1min&feed;:c=localnews&feed;:i=48069576&nopaging;=1 last week. A resolution advanced by board Vice President Yolie Flores Aguilar would allow various groups -- unions, parent and community associations, charters, universities and school district staff -- to submit competing proposals to run dozens of newly constructed schools as they open over the next few years. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who hinted at this idea in his inaugural address a few weeks ago, is trying to shore up support for Flores Aguilar’s proposal. Organized labor objects, fearing the loss of union jobs under non-district operators. At minimum, it seeks guarantees that all the schools will be union shops.

That’s a nonstarter. Looser work rules and more progressive pay and discipline procedures than United Teachers Los Angeles allows are a hallmark of charter schools and might be required by other applicants as well. For this experiment to work as intended -- to bring exciting, diverse new educational models to the mammoth school district -- decisions must be made on the basis of who puts forth the most compelling instructional program for each school.

That has to be true for both sides. As envisioned by Flores Aguilar, the criteria for selecting the operators would be heavily tilted toward large, established charter organizations such as Green Dot Public Schools. The two top factors would be parent opinion and an established record of running good schools.

Though we value parents’ role in the process, sound instructional decisions aren’t based on popularity contests. Applicants should be proving how creative and rigorous their curricula are, how safe their campuses will be and which enrichment and supplemental programs they will offer -- not how adept they are at marketing themselves to the public. Where parents should have a voice is on what they would value in their new school -- safe passage to and from campus, for example, or after-school programs, or specialized curricula such as arts instruction. The district should then pick which applicant best meets the needs of the community’s children. Otherwise, applicants would be tempted to promise all sorts of extras that have little to do with the quality of education.


That’s not to demean such respected charter operators as Green Dot, Bright Star or Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools, which we would expect to participate enthusiastically in Flores Aguilar’s initiative. Yet an overemphasis on extensive experience would keep out small but visionary competitors. Even charter juggernaut Green Dot was an upstart several years ago. United Teachers Los Angeles might lack a track record of operating schools, but if it submits superior applications, it should get to run one or more -- as should a university, community nonprofit or other trustworthy entity.

Given a level playing field, UTLA’s best strategy for creating union jobs at these schools would be to submit unbeatable proposals for running them. That would provide a chance to demonstrate what it has long asserted -- that traditionally trained and unionized teachers know best how to create successful schools.

Flores Aguilar should spend the next several weeks, before the board reconsiders her resolution, adding solid detail and objectivity. At that point, the board should stop equivocating and show that it’s serious about being an agent of educational change. It has squandered such opportunities before. It must not do so again.

May the best proposals win -- which means, not incidentally, that students are the real winners.