L.A. teachers gain control of 22 campuses in reform effort


In an unlikely victory, groups of teachers, rather than outside operators, will run the vast majority of 30 campuses under a controversial school reform effort, the Los Angeles Board of Education decided Tuesday.

It was an ironic twist to a strategy that was designed to allow outsiders to manage new or troubled campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District. When the board approved the concept in August, it was a stunning acknowledgment that the nation’s second-largest school system needed help to improve its schools.

But the result was far different. Acting mostly on recommendations from Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, the board agreed Tuesday to turn over 22 of the schools to teacher-led efforts. Board members also supported Cortines’ proposal to have different groups share some campuses. Teachers, for example, were given a role at two other schools along with outside groups.

The teachers competed against Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s nonprofit school organization and charter schools, independently run public campuses that are mostly nonunion.

In the end, charter schools were given the chance to run four schools and the mayor’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools was given three.

The board’s decision directly affects close to 40,000 students -- a number that by itself would represent one of the state’s largest school systems. This reform has been characterized as a possible national model as well as a signal of notable progress within L.A. Unified, which is competing for federal grants by claiming leadership status in reform efforts.

More than 250 existing schools initially fell under the plan’s sweep, but Cortines narrowed the list to 12 low-performing campuses along with 18 new ones.

Charters had lobbied hard for a chance to run the schools, and brought out hundreds Tuesday for a street demonstration that competed with a later teachers union rally outside the district’s downtown headquarters. Inside, the board room was packed with supporters of various constituencies and nearly 50 people appealed to the board before votes were taken.

Board member Yolie Flores, who brought the proposal to her colleagues last summer, had grown dissatisfied with student achievement at the new schools opened as part of the district’s massive school construction program. She also was sensitive to the challenge charter schools face in finding space to operate.

On Tuesday, she said she was “extremely disappointed” when board members altered some of the superintendent’s recommendations. Board President Monica Garcia, for example, successfully proposed removing two high-profile charter groups from the five small schools that will occupy the Torres high school complex east of downtown.

The board’s decisions, Flores said, “should be based on quality and merit. If we do not do that, I believe we compromise the integrity of this process.”

In a matter of weeks, groups of teachers created proposals during their off-time, helped by the district and their union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

Cortines told the board that he was impressed by the efforts.

“So many of our school communities have stepped up to the plate to improve the conditions at their schools,” he said. “Schools that have been struggling for years now have a sense of urgency and commitment to improving their schools.”

Cortines also answered critics who believed that he favored too few outside groups. “There are those who feel my recommendations are not bold enough,” Cortines said. “They are looking for something that might be sexy. Let me tell you, I am not interested in fads. I am interested in transforming the lives of our students.”

A few charter schools had vied for the existing schools, and charters got none of those.

The three charters that got knocked out are among the most politically potent and also regarded as movement leaders: Green Dot Public Schools, the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools and ICEF Public Schools.

“We find this to be an appalling decision,” said Jed Wallace, chief executive of the California Charters Schools Assn. “Merit was not at the heart of the matter today. The three organizations taken out of the process today . . . are understood at the national level to be the gold standard as far as charter operators go.”

The city’s union leadership, with its powerful influence over elections, had coalesced with district employee unions to argue against more charters.

“We are disappointed that some of our schools were given to outside operators,” said teachers union official Joel Jordan. Still, “UTLA is heartened that the school board chose to recognize the excellence of the teacher-parent plans.”

The mayor, who insiders said also lobbied board members, got three of the four schools he wanted to expand the 12 controlled by his education group: one new elementary, Griffith Joyner Elementary in Watts and Carver Middle School in South Park. He quietly lobbied for Griffith Joyner and the board complied by overriding Cortines on that choice. The mayor did not get control of Jefferson High, which he had also sought.

Earlier this month, the district allowed parents, students, employees and community members to vote separately for the reform plans they favored. The results were not binding on district officials.

The teachers union mounted a grass-roots campaign and successfully dominated the elections, which occasionally descended into chaos.