LOS ANGELES — THE Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) may have taken a historic first step out of an educational quagmire that has been worsening here during the past decade.
The Los Angeles Board of Education voted unanimously March 15 to adopt am ambitious program that will decentralize control of the city's 650 schools, increasing parental, community, and teacher involvement in running schools. While proponents say the plan may be a model for the nation, critics argue that it doesn't go far enough and may usher in an era of divisive local political battles.
The educational reform plan was forged by a 600-member group called LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now), which included representatives of parents, teachers, unions, businesses, and civic groups. LEARN spent the last two years formulating a response to the LAUSD's chronic shortages of classrooms and teachers, lingering budget problems, labor disputes, a 40 percent student dropout rate, and worsening test scores.
"California has been dropping, dropping, dropping in every education statistic except class size," says Catherine Carey, communications director of United Teachers of Los Angeles, the powerful teachers' union. "The entire community has finally realized [reform] was a quality-of-life issue that affects the entire future of the city."
By decentralizing decisionmaking and budget authority, LEARN hopes to allow schools to better address their own needs.
Under the plan's blueprint, each school will be given authority to set budgets and standards for student achievement and will be given greater control over curriculum and administration. Teachers and principals will have greater decisionmaking authority and will be held accountable for students' performance. Parents will have a greater say in schooling. But the Board of Education will retain the power to set broad policies and monitor student performance.
The program will be introduced in July at 30 schools. The first phase of the plan will cost $3.3 million, which will be raised from private donations. The LEARN plan will be phased in for all of the school system's 641,000 students over the next five years.
"Giving us more say and inviting parental and community participation will certainly aid us in doing a job that has gotten tougher and tougher," says Marsha Cunningham, a first-grade teacher at Manchester Avenue Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles.
But though many teachers and principals say they are aware of the plan's broad brushstrokes, many are concerned about the as-yet-undecided details.
"There are whole new sections on school governance and defining responsibility that sound better for me," says Bernie Goldstein, principal of the Manchester Avenue school. "But I'm concerned that decentralization also has its down side - like [losing] instructional services and consultants who come and work with staff development."
The LEARN plan also has been criticized by those who favor more radical solutions to the LAUSD's problems - such as breaking up the mammoth school district, which serves more than 4 million residents. State Sen. David Roberti (D) of Los Angeles, the Senate majority leader, has introduced a plan to divide the LAUSD into seven districts. The L.A. school board voted March 15 to oppose the Roberti proposal.
"This school board should recognize that it is better to break up the system than to have it torn apart by parental revolution," Senator Roberti says. "Reforms like LEARN only work in smaller districts.... As long as any power is retained downtown, there will never be true powersharing with the local parents, teachers, and principals."
Critics add that the LEARN plan leaves in place too many of the LAUSD's structural problems. For instance, the Los Angeles Daily News notes in an editorial that the plan does nothing to diminish the power of the teachers' union, which has been blamed by some for the district's bureaucratic gridlock.
In response, members of LEARN say that their ideas have been successfully adopted in other cities, including Rochester, N.Y., and Edmonton, Alberta.
"The biggest advantage for us has been disentangling the operation of the school so ordinary parents could understand it," says Dr. Michael Strembitsky, superintendent of the Edmonton school district, which adopted a decentralized plan in 1979 for its 200 schools. "It has just made it easier for the individual communities to implement and follow what they want to do. The change has made a world of difference for the better."
Leaders of LEARN are optimistic that, because their plan has broad support in Los Angeles, it, too, will work.
"Los Angeles hasn't been known for its unity," says Mary Chambers, vice president of LEARN. "This has extraordinarily wide support among teachers, principals, and administrators. It literally reverses top-down management to support children from the bottom up."