Make Up or Break Up?

How not splitting up the Los Angeles Unified School District has driven education reform.


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For the greater part of a generation, student achievement in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), once known as one of the best school systems in the nation, has been at a standstill. Reformers have long blamed LAUSD’s problems on its massive size and centralized bureaucracy, aptly nicknamed by the media, the “Los Angeles Mummified School District.” Indeed, LAUSD, the second-largest district in the nation, educates almost 617,000 students daily, kindergarten through 12th grade. That’s more children than the entire population of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.
The district is equally astonishing in its scope, covering 710 square miles and consisting of more than 800 schools. In the 1990s, residents frustrated with the district’s lackluster student achievement results began thinking that changing LAUSD’s size was the key to education reform. The push to splinter the behemoth into separate, autonomous entities that would give parents, teachers, and community leaders a say in children’s education began in earnest.
Since then, countless district-wide breakup initiatives have come and gone. Those failed efforts helped Los Angeles learn that splintering the district would not only be pretty impossible to achieve without wasting countless years and taxpayer dollars on litigation, but it would also further exacerbate inequalities between schools in low-income and wealthy areas—potentially doing even more damage to students. With divorce not an option, education reformers had no choice but to innovate at the grassroots level.
Mark Slavkin grew up in Los Angeles, went to school in LAUSD, and works as the Vice President for Education at the Music Center of the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County. But, from 1989 to 1997—when the breakup movement bubbled up—Slavkin served on the city’s school board.
“My message when I ran was one of local control and the need to empower communities instead of having all decisions made by a remote central body,” he says. Student achievement data at the time was nonexistent, there was no accountability, and the amount of red tape in the district was epic.
As a solution, in 1993, the district adopted a grassroots reform strategy called LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now), which was the brainchild of former Mayor Richard Riordan. LEARN brought parents, teachers, administrators, and school allies together, and helped organize reform efforts at 375 schools. The district also began experimenting with different iterations of local mini-districts: 27 local clusters, then 11, and then eight local districts, its current number. “At the same time,” says Slavkin, “some of the very first charter schools in the United States were being born in Los Angeles as part of the effort to bring decision-making back into the hands of local communities and free schools from bureaucracy.”
The LEARN effort fell apart in 1999 when LAUSD recentralized its authority and the effort’s leader, Mike Roos, quit; these events came in the wake of the death of teachers-union advocate Helen Bernstein, who was struck by a car and killed in 1997. With the core leaders gone, reform floundered and breakup talk began anew.
Slavkin says the mood at the time was fraught with simmering racial and class tensions due to the city’s changing demographics. Angelenos sensed that schools in the whiter and wealthier Westside and San Fernando Valley wanted to flee from the poorer, more racially diverse southern and eastern parts of the city. Indeed, a 2001 proposal to dismantle the district failed after the California Board of Education determined that the potential loss of the Valley’s property-tax dollars would have a catastrophic effect on the rest of the city’s schools. A UCLA study commissioned by Riordan also indicated that a Valley breakup would create even greater racial and educational inequality and foster new levels of bureaucratic inefficiency.
The district is equally astonishing in its scope, covering 710 square miles and consisting of more than 800 schools
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A year later, the 2002 San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession movement—a ballot initiative that sought to make both areas separate cities—was fueled in part by the desire for local control of schools. However, the city’s electorate voted the initiative down, choosing instead to keep one unified Los Angeles, and thus, one unified school district.
Slavkin says the idea of a large breakup of the district began to fall out of favor “in part due to the public’s fatigue with the arguments over who would have control of the schools instead of discussions about what to actually do to help kids learn.” There was also the realization that it would be a logistical and legal nightmare to break up LAUSD. “Who would own the assets and physical buildings?” Slavkin asks. “How do you share the current pension obligations for district employees? Should the liability for when a kid trips and falls be borne by a single neighborhood?”
In recent years, the district’s demographics have changed significantly. Seventy-four percent of the LAUSD student body is Latino and 78 percent is low-income. Instead of fixating on breakup plans, progressive reformers hoping to address student needs have facilitated a quiet, de facto devolution of the district. In the past decade, more than 150 charter schools have sprung up across the city. And, in a bid to win more decision-making autonomy and control over their budgets, some of the city’s highest performing high schools, like six-time U.S. Academic Decathlon champion El Camino Real High School, are breaking away and becoming charters as well.
Michelle King, LAUSD’s Deputy Superintendent for School Operations, acknowledges that the days of top-down districts are over. She points to LAUSD’s innovative pilot schools, as well as campuses where teachers themselves are bidding to take over schools and implement reforms, as evidence of grassroots movement. “The district doesn’t have to break up to put students first,” she says. Instead, “allowing more flexibility about what path individual school sites take to reach the goal of all students being college or career ready is key. We’re learning that every school doesn’t have to look the same to accomplish that.”
King says the recently opened Esteban E. Torres High School, the first high school built in East L.A. in 85 years, is a prime example of what’s working in the district. “There are five separate schools on one campus—five different pilots—and each one is unique and listening to the needs and concerns of the community.” Indeed, what makes Torres really stand out is that it’s designed and run by a collaborative group of LAUSD teacher-leaders and community members. Together they planned the campus’s cutting-edge college- and career-preparation pilot schools—including an urban-planning and design school, as well as an engineering and technology academy.
In 2007, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the LAUSD also managed to work out a groundbreaking collaboration deal. Villaraigosa now runs 21 of the district’s lowest-performing campuses through his nonprofit, the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. Partnership schools are able to cultivate community involvement, harness resources, and incubate reforms that can, ideally, be deployed district-wide. But do they get results? For the 2009-2010 school year, the Partnership and Villaraigosa reported a 21-point increase on the State of California’s Academic Performance Index, outpacing the results of the average LAUSD campus.
Slavkin thinks the decentralization process could go even further than it has. He sees a future where “neighborhood councils for education” would enable local teachers and parents to “meet regularly and work out the challenges of their school cluster.” He also has confidence that incoming superintendent John Deasy will continue the move to local control and further propel Los Angeles as a national example of what’s possible when people are empowered locally. But, he says, “There’s a question: Will Deasy be here long enough to bring about further change?”
“The ground is littered with superintendents in LAUSD. God bless anybody who wants to take that job.”
Art by Ely Kim\n
Learn more about mayoral control in the nation's other large districts here.\n
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