Monday, August 29, 2011

LAUSD Board Needs to Move Forward, Not Back on Promising Reform

When I was elected to the L.A. Unified School Board in 2007, I promised that I would fight to change a dysfunctional system that served the agendas of the adults at the expense of too-often-forgotten children and families. Change is hard and slow. But I believed change was also possible, even for the LAUSD.

In August of 2009, working with many committed supporters of reform and a chorus of parents demanding change, the LAUSD Board of Education passed the Public School Choice resolution, shaking up the district’s culture of dysfunction, gridlock, and failure.

The resolution allows various education groups, including teachers, community associations, universities, unions, and charters, to submit proposals to run chronically low-performing schools as well as newly built schools. This challenge to the status quo brought hope to thousands of our city’s least powerful and most underserved families, and sent a message that the District would no longer operate these schools in the same old way, with the same tired and tragic results for kids

Unfortunately, school board member Steve Zimmer now wants to eviscerate this powerful reform that has – even in these early stages – shown promising results. Zimmer’s proposal – to be considered on August 30th – would prohibit charter schools from bidding for newly built schools unless it was determined that no other proposals were adequate. This proposal would stack the deck against successful charters and discourage them from competing to turn around not just new schools, but also our most disadvantaged schools.

If Zimmer’s desire is to give internal applicants a greater opportunity to run new schools or improve schools that have been in trouble for decades, then let’s give more weight to internal proposals that include greater support for teachers, are data driven, and embrace educator quality reforms. These might include:

• More effective teacher and principal evaluations that include student achievement data,
• Move tenure for new teachers from two to four years so teachers have more time to develop, and
• Use effectiveness rather than longevity to make employment decisions.

Equally important, LAUSD and United Teachers Los Angeles must be willing to give these internal teams the freedoms they need to be successful, which at present continue to be challenged by both bureaucracies.

Zimmer’s attack on the Public School Choice resolution ignores the positive results that it brought to the District. The data show clearly that the charter applicants that were awarded schools in the first round of Public School Choice helped us bring better schools to children that had been stuck in underperforming schools. Of the four charters that were granted new schools to run, three did significantly better than nearby schools. Synergy Charter Academy in south Los Angeles, for example, had almost 69% of the children proficient in English language arts compared to 29% at nearby Wadsworth Elementary. In math, 90.1% of the children at Synergy were proficient, compared to 46.8% at Wadsworth.

Equally important, these schools are providing models that are pushing adjacent, District-operated schools towards success. Public School Choice not only improved many of the schools that were reorganized under the resolution, but may have improved the entire district, based on the recent across the board growth in test scores throughout the LAUSD.

Zimmer’s resolution is a big slide away from reform and back down a slippery slope to the old, failed way of doing District business. Shall we further limit the choices of minority families that today have the fewest options for a quality education for their children, while affluent families tend to have higher quality schools? Indeed, most black and Latino students have the least access to good schools because they are financially disadvantaged. Their choices are limited to what is in their neighborhood, schools that too often are not offering students a chance at success. Public School Choice pushes on that and offers an opportunity to provide a better-quality neighborhood school – precisely what middle-class and affluent students have.

I believe that this decision is easy; every family should have access to an abundance of good school options, and the Public School Choice Act moves us in this direction. Mr. Zimmer’s resolution takes us backwards, away from our commitment to bring change to the kids we have neglected for way too long.

Fortunately, it is not too late to stop this rollback of reform and to defend the progress we have already made. We can raise our voices and let our Board members hear them. Together, we can make change happen, and keep on putting kids first.