Urban Education Reform, LA Style

When policy wonks pick interesting examples of urban education reform, Los Angeles Unified School District is not among them. It should be.

Through the bump and rub of messy politics and a generation of reform efforts, the country's second largest school district has moved away from a classic hierarchy and is slowly reinventing itself as a network-style organization. More than a quarter of LAUSD students attend schools operated outside the conventional hierarchy.

Of the district's 885 schools, some 155 are charter schools that operated independently of the district management. In addition 172 magnet schools are freed from some district regulation. Two prototype charter districts are under operation. Locke High School is operated by a charter management organization, and its charismatic leader, Steve Barr, seeks the opportunity to expand his reach, as do others. Mayor Villaraigosa gained control over 11 schools, a project that is getting mixed reviews. Several schools operate under modified "slim" labor contracts that leave some work rule determination to the schools. And there are experiments with other external partnerships with universities and with reproducing the Boston Pilot School model, essentially an in-district charter arrangement.

The pace of change has picked up. In August, the school board approved a resolution to subject up to 250 additional schools to a request-for-proposal process that will allow outsiders to compete to operate them. A furious competition between district teachers, assisted by their union, United Teachers Los Angeles, charter management organizations and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, an organization fostered by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

There is a bias among policy wonks for authoritarian leadership. Strong mayors like New York's Michael Bloomberg or Chicago's Richard Daley are attractive. Education czars like Paul Vallas (Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans) or Washington, DC's Michelle Rhee gain attention on the nightly news. By comparison, Los Angeles looks messy. But over time its everyday politics have produced a rough outline for the country's first 21st century school district.

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