Our school system is fracturing. While the Los Angeles Unified School District and its bargaining partners, the unions, endlessly debate how best to fix the system, parents and students are walking away from LAUSD.
I know because I’m not only a member of the school board, I’m the mother of two elementary school students in the district.
Traditional, district-run schools are seen as bureaucratic, handcuffed by red tape, and a growing number of parents are choosing charter schools instead. There are now nearly 200 charter and affiliated-charter schools in Los Angeles serving nearly 100,000 students. These are public schools run by private organizations, with more autonomy than traditional schools. The assumption is that, except for the hard-to-get-into magnets or the highest-performing neighborhood schools, the best way to get a good education in L.A. is to head for classrooms dedicated to reform. Not surprisingly, a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed 52% of respondents had a favorable opinion of charters, while only 24% considered traditional schools effective.
In fact, that’s not true. But one thing is clear: If LAUSD wants to compete for students, and if it wants to survive and thrive as a system, it needs to encourage reform, innovation and excellence at every school, from every teacher and every principal. It needs to champion reform, from the inside out.
To do that means removing impediments to change. The district’s central administration needs to be more flexible and open. But that alone won’t lead to reform from within the district. We also need the district’s partners, the unions, to become more flexible.
For example, district schools need to be allowed to control their destinies. That means giving them local control over their finances and over professional development. It means giving individual schools the ability to hire their own staff, using criteria that aren’t limited to seniority. And it means allowing schools to adopt a stronger, fairer, more complete teacher evaluation system.
The district and the union have already agreed to loosen contract rules in some instances — for specific pilot programs, and under waivers for plans submitted under the Public School Choice program. PSC allows district outsiders (mostly charter operators) or insiders (teachers and administrators) to apply to institute a reform plan at failing schools. But the union has capped pilot programs, and waivers are hard to get.
On top of that, as a board member, I’ve been told that teachers and administrators are pressured to submit only PSC plans that conform to union rules. In the end, district insiders are often frustrated because the outsiders’ PSC applications tend to win the day — often because the outsiders can provide the reforms and local school control parents want.
The origin of union rules and the reasoning behind the union contract protections are understandable. An overwhelming majority of our teachers work hard, in challenging conditions. They are not paid what they are worth to Los Angeles. But even with appropriate protections from angry parents and unfair supervisors, union rules were never meant to prevent flexibility or accountability or to force out talented new teachers.
Going charter cannot be the only viable to path to reform for Los Angeles schools. The union must give our teachers and principals the chance to generate in-district reform, or the LAUSD will splinter. The district is packed with principals and teachers with passion, energy and innovative ideas. It’s time to support them, with compromises to increase pilot programs and waivers, with support that will increase their success in taking charge of PSC schools, and with new contracts that allow teachers and principals — the district insiders — to be reformers too.
Tamar Galatzan, a deputy city attorney, is in her second term representing District 3 on the school board. She is the only board member with children enrolled in LAUSD.