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Shaking up the status quo in L.A. schools

Six million, give or take. That’s how many children are in public school in California.

Arguably, we won’t have a strong economic future if they don’t get a good education.

But boy, do the grown-ups love to muck things up for the kids.

Politics, ego, endless skirmishes between school districts and teacher unions — it all gets in the way of the kids’ best interests. And California spends less per pupil than all but a few states when you adjust for regional cost-of-living differences, leading to an annual ritual of laying off thousands of teachers and other staffers.

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But in Los Angeles, the status quo is under attack.

Parents and education advocates are suing L.A. Unified in an effort to enforce an overlooked state law that requires teacher and principal evaluations to be linked to student achievement.

Meanwhile, a phalanx of parents, advocates and organizations, including the United Way, is demanding that L.A. Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles lay down their weapons in current contract negotiations and hammer out some big-ticket reforms. Doing so, of course, would require changes UTLA has militantly resisted.

The movement is calling itself Don’t Hold Us Back, suggesting it’s ready for a fight. And because it includes organizations and people who have seldom been fans of unions, critics say it’s all a conspiracy to privatize public schools for personal gain. But the alliance also includes groups that have traditionally backed UTLA.

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So alongside bankers and lawyers and big business, you’ve got the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Community Coalition, to name a few. On Oct. 24, the group sent a letter to L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, UTLA leader Warren Fletcher and L.A. Unified board members, demanding reforms for the sake of the district’s 700,000 students.

“We recognize student test scores have been increasing incrementally over the last few years,” said the letter. “However, incremental advances are simply not enough. When only 56% of our students graduate from high school in four years, we are failing close to half of our kids and consigning them to a life of poverty.”

The rabble-rousers want to give more power to schools to make their own decisions on curriculum and hiring, with guarantees that parents and staff at failing schools can opt to turn things over to charter organizations or other alternative operators. They want quality, rather than just seniority, to be considered in personnel moves. They want student achievement to be a part of teacher evaluations, with professional development provided for instructors who need it and higher pay for more effective teachers.

OK, I have trouble disagreeing with much of that, and Supt. Deasy himself has been angling for those kinds of changes. But we’ve heard reformers call for a new day more than once, with nothing to show for it. So will things really be different this time? It’s hard to see how anyone can make much of a difference unless California climbs out of the basement in education funding.

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“A lot of teachers we work with are just absolutely fed up with both the funding situation and the bureaucratic nature of teaching in LAUSD,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president of South L.A.'s Community Coalition. Although it’s parents and activists who are demanding changes, he thinks it’s teachers who can best make that happen by challenging UTLA and the district to better represent their interests.

Enrique Legaspi, who teaches history at Hollenbeck Middle School, is ready to sign up. He wants teacher innovations supported rather than crushed, he wants underperforming teachers helped or dismissed so he doesn’t inherit their underprepared students. He can’t understand why in the age of social media, teachers aren’t provided with information about innovations around the country. And he’d be happy to have 25% of his evaluation based on how well his students are testing.

David Wu, head of the Dorsey High science department at the age of 26, said he wants his union to lead the way on reforms rather than defending a status quo that’s not working. He’s all for using multiple measures to judge his performance because he wants more feedback on what he’s doing well and what needs improving.

Kyle Hunsberger, who teaches math at Cochran Middle School, said he wishes the union would take “more initiative” in promoting a better teacher evaluation system, and he wishes the district was better equipped to address the needs of struggling students rather than “just pushing them through.”

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Is some of this finally possible?

“I think there’s a possibility of change for schools and, more importantly, for kids. But I worry that so much of it is just a matter of political rhetoric and posturing … and that we are simply finding new ways to figure out who’s going to control things,” said Hunsberger, a wise young man of 29.

So what does Fletcher, the new UTLA boss, have to say about it all? I always knew where I stood with his predecessor, A.J. Duffy, who speaks bluntly. My first conversation with Fletcher was more of a dance. He told me UTLA supports much of what Don’t Hold Us Back wants. But he said “the devil is in the details” and added that “collective bargaining is designed so neither side gets everything they want.”

Well, here’s what I want as an L.A. Unified parent.

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I want good teachers protected when layoffs are necessary, regardless of their seniority, and financial incentives for great teachers who agree to work at tougher schools. I want struggling teachers identified, not so they can be punished but so they can get the help they need. I want at least as much scrutiny of principals as teachers, because they can make all the difference in the quality of a school. And I want both the district and the union to know how absurd it is that when both sides acknowledge the current teacher evaluation system is useless, years have passed without them agreeing on a better one.

It’s time for the grown-ups to stop mucking things up for the kids.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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