The Death of Public School Choice

By Charles Taylor Kerchner and Dominic J. Brewer

The Los Angeles Unified School District board, which in August voted 6-1 for a competition between internal and external education providers, did its best to kill it off on last week. A different policy for change is needed. Here's why.

The board's Public School Choice resolution subjected 24 new schools and 12 chronically underperforming ones to a request-for-proposal process. This was thought of as a spirited but fair competition that invited participation from a wide swath of organizations.

In the heat of summer, the hope was that the resolution would spur the district further on the path of becoming a networked organization, "a system of schools" rather than a massive hierarchy designed in the early 20th Century. It is already well on its way. Of the district's 885 schools, some 155 are charter schools. In addition, 172 magnet schools are freed from some District regulation. Two prototype charter districts are under operation. The Mayor's partnership operates 11 schools. Locke High School is operated by a charter management organization. The public school choice resolution raised the prospect of a rapid acceleration of this approach.

In the space of only a few weeks, wondrous things happened. Seventy-nine proposals were written for these schools, 41 from charter schools and other external operators, 4 from the Mayor's partnership, 34 from internal groups of teachers and administrators. Alongside the charters, the most innovative LAUSD administrators were suddenly given the green light to innovate within the district. Teacher groups came forward with ideas that had been brewing for years. Principals of some of the failing schools gained cooperation from their faculties when it was known that an external takeover might be possible. Think of it as a jungle where hundreds of leopards were furiously changing their spots.

Two panels reviewed the proposals, and advisory elections were held for each school, with some 40,000 votes cast. The elections were heavily influenced by United Teachers Los Angeles, which took out radio ads to oppose the charter operators and whip up support for plans developed by members of their bargaining unit. All-in-all the process took an extraordinary amount of work, much of it done by volunteers. We read most of the proposals, served on one of the review panels, and can say that as a group they were far more focused on student achievement than the school reform proposals of the 1990s.

Before the board vote, Superintendent Ramon Cortines issued his recommendations in a way that gave each of the contenders a little of what they wanted. Cortines' picks were very conservative, with only seven of the charter school proposals recommended. This was disappointing, barely enough to establish the principle of a contest built on merit. But accepting Cortines' recommendations would at least have furthered the notion of a school district creating campuses with different types of operators, thus enabling students and their families to better match their needs to schools and furthering variety in the huge district's school options.

Rather than accept Cortines' recommendations as the endpoint of the process it had established in August, the school board passed amendments removing charter operators from the Barack Obama Middle School and the Esteban Torres High School complex. Amendments were attempted to remove others.

Each of the board amendments was reasoned, but the net effect was to eliminate the strongest charter school operators: those who had the resources and organizational strength to operate a new building and potentially to take over a failing school.

Without incentives for external participation, the whole idea falls apart. Charter operators are unlikely to participate in further rounds. Look for the organizations and individuals that enthusiastically stepped forward to make the process possible to fade away. The energy bubble around reform has been burst one more time. Cynicism about LAUSD's capacity for change is back with a vengeance.

With little external competition, the internal incentives for change drop away. It was only the possibility of dramatic restructuring that galvanized such rapid internal action. Indeed, those who were close to the process tell us that when faculties at the underperforming schools found that there would be no external proposal at their school, interest in innovation vanished and the proposal process was treated as an exercise in compliance with a central office mandate. The compliance mentality will lead to more superficial "program improvement" efforts that are endemic in the district but rarely result in any tangible gains for students.

At Tuesday's board meeting, Cortines promised to get tough on the failing schools, but his range of options is limited. He can replace principals, and has done so. But emptying out and restaffing schools, as he announced at Fremont High School in December, is very difficult, both politically and organizationally.

In Learning from L.A. and in a Policy Analysis for California Education briefing paper issued this month, Charles Kerchner and his co-authors recommend legislation to allow groups of schools who choose to follow a reform path to succeed from the district's direct control while remaining under the oversight of the school board.

This strategy would preserve the initiative for schools, and groups of schools to develop and institute reform plans and gain legal protection and independent operations similar to those enjoyed by charters. It would allow multiple schools operating as Pilots, schools designed by the District itself, various collaborations, charters, and teacher run cooperatives. It would cover both school operations and access to buildings, both new and old.

But unlike the case with the current process, legislation rather than school board policy would dictate the procedures for and set up the machinery for its process. Given the politics of the board, it's a better path.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is a research professor at the Claremont Graduate University.
Dominic J. Brewer is the Clifford H. and Betty C. Allen Professor in Urban Leadership at the University of Southern California