Reformers Push Local-Control Plan

EDUCATION reformers in California are popularizing a new acronym: SBAM.

The letters stand for "School Based Accountability and Management." They encompass ideas that have been circulating in various forms for years but are gaining new currency as beleaguered school districts look for ways to deal with overcrowding, underfinancing, and new immigrants who often don't speak English.

The concept is to transfer decisions about curriculum, staffing, financing, and choice of books and materials from district and state bureaucrats to local principals, teachers, and parents.

"School districts in California and several parts of the US have begun to grapple with the challenge of lodging educational decisions closer to where the educational action is," says James Guthrie, co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). Falling under various terms such as "shared decisionmaking," "shared governance," and "school-based management," the principles are the same, Mr. Guthrie says: In exchange for calling their own shots on ways to meet district or state performance g oals, local school authorities must accept new accountability for results.

Following the lead of such school districts as Rochester, N.Y., and Dade County, Fla., the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) last month adopted such a plan. Called LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now), the plan was the result of a two-year investigation by 600 civic leaders, parents, teachers, and administrators.

"This is a plan that literally reverses the top-down management LAUSD has gotten in the past to address student needs from the bottom up," says LEARN vice president Mary Chambers. The district has been plagued in recent years by shortages of classrooms and teachers, labor disputes, recurring budget battles, a 40 percent dropout rate, and declining test scores.

Adopted unanimously by the LAUSD school board, the plan includes these elements:

* Responsibility on budget, staff selections, and teaching methods shifts from central district offices to local schools. Annual surveys to determine how well the schools are working will be conducted. A plan to allow parents to choose schools within the district will be developed.

* Discretionary monies will be provided to schools using existing grants and state funding. Allocation will be based on enrollment and needs. Schools with poor or limited-English-speaking pupils could receive more funds than other schools.

* A training academy will be established for principals and teachers, who will be allowed to customize their career goals.

* Every student is expected to master a core of learning that includes math, the arts, literature, science, history, cultures and languages, physical training, and health. New tests will be developed to measure students' achievements.

The LEARN plan will be introduced July 30 at 30 LAUSD schools, with the intention of phasing in the district's other 620 schools over five years.

Critics of the LEARN plan are many, however. Supporters of a new bill that would break up the mammoth district say LEARN is just a veiled way for board members and union officials to maintain control. State Sen. David Roberti (D) of Los Angeles, the Senate majority leader, has introduced a plan that would divide the LAUSD into seven districts.

"As long as any power is retained downtown [at the school district's central office], there will never be true power sharing with the local parents, teachers, and principals," Senator Roberti says. "Reforms like LEARN only work in smaller districts."

Dick Rippey, assistant principal at Hollywood High School, says he's glad that his school is not among the first to try LEARN.

"The word accountability concerns me," he says. "They are going to be giving the administrators all this money and power up front, which should be great at first. But then what is going to be a reasonable performance level to expect from that, and how will they measure it?"

Among his reservations, Mr. Rippey doubts that the level of parental involvement the plan calls for is attainable. "At the high school level, it is very, very difficult to enlist parent and community involvement - that tends to drop off after elementary and junior high school," he says.

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