(In an online debate at LATimes.com, Reason Foundation's Lisa Snell and Pomona professors Walter P. Coombs and Ralph E. Shaffer debate the pros and cons of education reform proposals. The full series is available here.)
While transforming Los Angeles Unified will be a difficult job no matter who sits on the school board, I believe there are two significant impacts that could come from a win by the Mayor's candidates—Tamar Galatzan (District 3) and Richard Vladovic (District 7).
First, since they are more open to charter schools, they could help increase the number of high-quality schools in Los Angeles Unified through the direct approval of more charter schools or the support of Mayor-authorized charters. These new schools would be an immediate escape valve for those students languishing in low-performing schools like Locke high school. In addition, the competition from charters will continue to put pressure on the district to change its practices and make district-schools better performers.
Secondly, the Mayor's candidates could help the Mayor push for a school empowerment plan within Los Angeles Unified itself. In Mayor Villaraigosa's education reform plan, The Schoolhouse: A Framework to Give Every Child in LAUSD An Excellent Education, he calls for decentralizing public schools by driving more money into the classroom, empowering principals to make key decisions affecting their schools, and giving schools autonomy over school budgets. Under his plan, money would follow students into schools. Tamar Galatzan has also mentioned local control of budgets as her solution for dealing with district bureaucracy and inefficiency.
School empowerment is catching on nationwide. In his 2007 State of the City Address, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for school empowerment through the "weighted-student formula," a growing trend in which public funding moves with the child, for all of New York City's 1,467 schools. One week later, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons echoed Bloomberg's proposal with his own weighted-student formula plan, which would affect more than 100 schools and "empower" families with greater educational choice.
Even within the Los Angeles Unified School District, district and union officials have agreed in concept to develop a group of independent small schools in the Pico-Union area, allowing students to choose a campus that best fits their interests. The Belmont Pilot Schools Network would consist of five to ten fully autonomous high schools launched over the next five years, with a maximum of 400 students each. Principals and teachers at those schools would work under a separate contract that would free them to determine school calendars, curricula, budgets and administrative structures.
These school leaders are choosing this school empowerment reform because it works rapidly to transform existing public schools. It is not a coincidence that San Francisco, in its sixth year of school empowerment, is the highest performing urban district in California. Similarly, Oakland schools have shown rapid improvement under the district's move to a school empowerment plan. In 2003-04, for instance, Oakland's high schools offered 17 Advanced Placement classes. Last year, they increased this total to 91. Oakland students also are taking high-level math and science courses more frequently. About 800 high school students studied first-year physics last year—nearly triple the number taking the course in the 2004 school year. Overall, Oakland high schools gained, on average, 30 points in one year on the 2006 Academic Performance Index.
Short of breaking up the LAUSD into smaller districts, the school empowerment components of the Mayor's school reform plan and competition to the district from charter schools offer the best hope for progress in student outcomes in Los Angeles. However, the Mayor needs a receptive school board to increase the number of high-quality schools through charters for students stuck in failing traditional schools and to transform the district's existing schools through school empowerment.