L.A. tests merits of local control of schools

In a bold move watched by educators nationwide, the district decentralizes power to boost class performance.

Beset by overcrowding and stalled efforts to boost achievement in its schools, Los Angeles is taking a bold new tack: devolution.

In a move being watched by education reformers from coast to coast, the nation's second-largest school district has adopted a sweeping reorganization, shifting power away from a single, centralized authority, and putting it in the hands of smaller subdistricts.

The radical rethink could transform Los Angeles from a poster child of educational dysfunction to a model for other cities facing similar challenges: Houston, Chicago, New York, and Miami, for instance.

Supporters of the move say it will return control to communities and teachers, enabling them to better enforce standards, and end social promotion - promoting students before they are ready. Opponents say the new districts could lead to greater imbalances in school quality.

But both sides agree the devil will be in the details - precisely how the chains of command are set up and carried out in practice.

"There has been a general agreement by education reformers for years that the nation's big-city school systems got too big, too fast from the '60s to the '90s," says Chris Roellke, a professor of education at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "Now there is a shift of thinking that says smaller units might be the way to go. The question everyone will be trying to answer from the Los Angeles example will be: How does all this shifting of people and bureaucracy translate into better education in the classroom?"

The brainchild of outgoing, temporary Superintendent Ramon Cortines, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) will cut 800 central office jobs, and shift another 500 from central, downtown headquarters to 11 new subdistricts. It plans to open 11 district offices, hire 11 new superintendents, and redeploy hundreds of administrators by mid-summer.

Most observers welcome the move, after nearly a decade of debate on the subject.

"The decentralization plan as we see it is a step in the right direction," says Randy Ross, vice president of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, a tracking program for students. "The plan provides for student achievement, more flexibility and technical support. We believe it will work better than trying to run this from a central office."

Yet some say the idea doesn't go far enough, but rather is merely a way to prevent a more profound reorganization.

A big concern is whether the new setup will merely add another level of needless bureaucracy, which has tripped up reform efforts elsewhere. Critics point out that, even divided by 11, the district's 710,000 students will still be assigned to unwieldy units.

"You will still have districts of 50,000 to 60,000 in most places, which are still among the biggest in the state," says Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto. "They are going back to an idea that was popular in the 1970s, and which many have abandoned because they were not able to fully dismantle the old, central office."

Others counter that the Los Angeles move is far more drastic than past efforts. Attempts to partially decentralize schools in Chicago, New York, and London - the largest school system in the English-speaking world - fell short of needed changes in the classroom, these experts say.

"Clearly the [L.A.] department and superintendent had to do something that was a serious departure from business as usual," says Charles Kerchner, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate School.

One plus in executing the plan, say some, is that Mr. Cortines has tendered his resignation as of June 15. As a lame-duck administrator, the thinking goes, he can make the necessary cuts and transfers without having to worry about repercussions.

"Almost nowhere else has it been possible to clean up a mess and move forward [while still on the job]," says Katy Haycock, director of Education Trust, a Washington-based think tank. "Ray [Cortines] is doing the unglamorous parts now, taking the needed hits, and then will let a new person come in and build."

But other hurdles abound. The LAUSD is facing a severe teacher shortage, and needs 150 new schools to keep up with new student growth, spurred heavily by immigrants, over the next six years. Officials are searching for places to build new schools, even while they again mandate year-round schooling, an idea that has been tried in the past over public resistance.

In the meantime, teachers are in a state of near-mutiny over low pay, dilapidated facilities, the lack of trained managers, and lesson plans that are revised month by month with little notice.

"My question in this is: Will policy continue to come down from Big Brother on high as it has this year, with one hand not knowing what the other is doing?" asks Jodie Kennedy, a fifth-grade teacher at Wilton Place Elementary School.

LAUSD officials say the answer is no.

"Against all odds, we are proposing to reorient everything in the district toward academic achievement," says Howard Miller, chief operating officer of the LAUSD. In the classroom, that means a sustained emphasis on reading, especially in early grades. In collective bargaining agreements, that means creating incentives for getting the best teachers in the toughest schools.

"Before, we have been engaged in all kinds of things besides the process of education itself," says Miller. "We have left ourselves without any objective indication of how everyone is doing. Now we are trying to make that link, to motivate people and students alike with the right ideals, money, and vision."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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