In a startling acknowledgment that the Los Angeles school system cannot improve enough schools on its own, the city Board of Education approved a plan Tuesday that could turn over 250 campuses -- including 50 new multimillion-dollar facilities -- to charter groups and other outside operators.Of course, the teachers union is up in arms and vowing to block the plan through lawsuits. The Mayor, who fully supported the move, was not cowed by the union's threats.
The plan, approved on a 6-1 vote, gives Supt. Ramon C. Cortines the power to recommend the best option to run some of the worst-performing schools in the city as well as the newest campuses. Board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte dissented.
The vote occurred after a tense, nearly four-hour debate during which supporters characterized the resolution as a moral imperative. Foes called it illegal, illogical and improper.
The action signals a historic turning point for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has struggled for decades to boost student achievement. District officials and others have said their ability to achieve more than incremental progress is hindered by the powerful teachers union, whose contract makes it nearly impossible to fire ineffective tenured teachers. Union leaders blame a district bureaucracy that they say fails to include teachers in "top-down reforms."
"We're not going to be held hostage by a small group of people," Villaraigosa said, referring to the teachers union and other opponents. "I'll let you infer who I'm talking about."Assuming that this plan does indeed go through, it will be a real opportunity for charter schools to demonstrate whether or not they can truly do what they promise to educate students whom the regular public schools have failed. And we will see what happens once the power of the teachers unions in these schools is broken.
"The premise of the resolution is first and foremost to create choice and competition," said board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who brought the resolution, "and to really force and pressure the district to put forth a better educational plan."One reason for optimism is what has happened in New Orleans since Katrina. After the hurricane, the city turned to charter schools to rebuild the schools. A 2006 article co-authored by my daughter, looked at the move to turn the regular public schools over to charters to get them opened faster after the disaster. At that point, it was an experiment and we knew we'd have to wait to see what the results would be. Well, the results are starting to come in. USA Today reports,
She and other backers said they expected the district to improve its own performance and to also compete to turn around schools. Bidders could apply to manage schools by mid-January.
For the charter school operators, the biggest prize is 50 new schools scheduled to open over the next four years.
"It's absolutely indispensable, of critical importance to us," said Jed Wallace, chief executive of the California Charter Schools Assn. "It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity: 50 new school buildings coming online at the exact same time that a cadre of charter operators has demonstrated that it can generate unprecedented levels of student learning."
Charters are publicly funded but independently operated and free from some regulations governing the traditional administration of schools. They also are not required to be unionized.
Some of them have failed to outperform regular schools, according to some recent research. But backers of the new plan say that only the top-notch charter companies have a realistic shot at operating any of the 250 campuses that could be included, about a fourth of all district schools.
The devastation of Hurricane Katrina four years ago brought with it many changes for this city, but perhaps its most enduring mark may be the new charter school system that came cascading in during the storm's aftermath.We still need more sophisticated studies to analyze the progress of those charter schools compared to the regular public schools, but results such as this are inspiring and give us hope for Los Angeles.
Take, for instance, the students at Langston Hughes Academy. Once struggling to meet state testing standards, they're getting a lot of help to try and do better. Their learning environment has changed to one with electronic blackboards and teachers hailing from Ivy League schools.
The talk here is not about where to go after school, but where to go to college.
"There are higher expectations now and no excuses," said John Alford, the Harvard-trained leader of the school. "Kids are starting to see college more as a reality, a real option."
Langston Hughes Academy is one of 52 charter schools operating in New Orleans, which also has 37 traditionally run schools. Nearly 60% of the city's public school students attend charter schools — the highest percentage of any American city. School district officials hope to raise that percentage to 75% in the coming years.
New Orleans' school district's performance score — a tally of test scores and other performance measures — jumped from 56.9 pre-Katrina to 66.4 last year, according to state Department of Education figures. Statewide, the average during that same period stayed roughly the same: 87.4 pre-Katrina and 87.2 last year.
The numbers suggest the city still has some catching up to do with the rest of the state. Determining how New Orleans stacks up with the rest of the nation is difficult to assess since the tests are particular to Louisiana and comparisons cannot be reliably made with similar tests in other states.
Even so, the revamping of New Orleans schools, some of the worst-performing in the nation pre-Katrina, is catching the attention of educators nationwide, said Tony Miller, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. "If these types of practices can be taken across the country, especially in some of the more challenging urban environments, that would make a difference in improving education," Miller said during a recent visit to New Orleans. "You're seeing some of those results here."