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A New School District Design for Los Angeles

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Let's suppose that some smart, civic minded people in Los Angeles decided to stop the Charter School War and use their energy to create a 21st Century school system built on school autonomy and a network design.  Let's suppose that people with large amounts of money didn't want to go down in history as the folks who wrecked public education.  Let's suppose that charter-backers just won a school board election.

What would you do next?  There's been lots of blather from charter backers, but virtually no big tent ideas.

If charters and district operated schools are to co-exist, then Los Angeles needs an organization that makes all its publicly financed schools work together.

Experience in New Orleans, Newark, Washington, DC, and other cities indicates that there needs to be systemic coherence.  Increasingly, even charter-friendly writers and activists, such as Andy Smarick, are coming to the conclusion that simply adding more charters doesn't fix a city's education system.

Writing in the Fordham Institute blog, Smarick lauds Washington DC's charter sector, but sees the overhanging systemic issue.  "We have two sectors [charter and district], scores of operators, and hundreds of campuses, but we don't have a coherent system of schools," he writes.

If groups of schools gained autonomy, what would LAUSD become?  It would still be the public school district for Los Angeles and the other municipalities where its schools are located, but it would operate more as a coordinating institution than a conventional school district.

A Portfolio

LAUSD would be an operating school district.  It would run some schools directly.  Others would be run by charters, CMO's, groups of teachers, by university partners, or the teachers union.  Like a public pension fund or a private investment trust, LAUSD would authorize the best schools it could, and it would nurture and grow new schools.

"Portfolio of schools" has been applied to this idea, but that phrase has picked up negative political baggage associated with outsourcing and for-profit providers.  I think that's the wrong image and an inaccurate description.

The portfolio idea starts with creating a great school in every neighborhood.  The bottom line duty of a portfolio district is to create a good school nearby.  Regardless of who runs it, every student in the district should have a right to go to a top-flight school near his or her home. 

Add to this, the network for school operations: groups of schools, geographic or not, that want to work together.  They build capacity and then gain permission for autonomous operation from the distict.

LAUSD would retain strong oversight capability of both district schools and charters, and it would have sufficient power to alter or deny network agreements and restructure low-performing schools and networks.  But it would not be a "day trader" opening and closing schools because of test score dip or rise. (It's interesting to recall that the Public School Choice program quickly morphed into an effort built around cooperation and assistance rather than competition.)

It would take a page or two from the Carnegie Foundation's learning-to-improve strategy that starts with trying to understand the problem rather than impose a pre-cooked solution.

All the schools would have the same accountability rules for outcomes.  The data systems for all schools and networks would be compatible.  They wouldn't have to be the same system, just operate on the same data conventions and specifications.

Autonomous networks--both district schools and charters--would be reviewed periodically, perhaps every five years in an examination that was paired with accreditation.  But the district would retain no managerial or operating authority over the autonomous schools or the schools within them.

An Incubator of New Schools

Second, LAUSD would be an incubator of new schools and educational practices.  In this way, charters could better serve as research and development laboratories for the larger district, one of the intentions that the founders of the charter movement had for them.  Partnerships with universities and charters could be built around innovation rather than routine service delivery or rudimentary professional development; those would be the functions of the autonomous networks.

Collaboration with private, for-profit organizations might become beneficial rather than toxic.  Think, for a moment, how the ill-fated relationship between Apple, Pearson, and LAUSD might have worked if the arrangement was designed to develop and test new modes of learning instead of imposing an inadequately developed system at an impossible scale.

Quality Control Agency

Third, LAUSD would become the quality control agency for public schooling in Los Angeles.  Consistent with the requirements of the state Local Control Accountability Plan, it could monitor the development and execution of plans before handing them off to the county office, as the statute requires.

Real accountability means good metrics and going beyond them.  Creating the conditions for active learning and borrowing of good practices from school to school, from teacher to teacher, is much different from finding a perfect curriculum and mandating everyone to use it. Real accountability is as much process as it is an endpoint rating.

Decentralization Requires a Strong Center

School reformers in Los Angeles have looked for ways to decentralize the district for more than four decades.  The current tension between charters and district schools can be made productive if it feeds decentralized operations and schools are allowed to link with one another to form support networks.

But there is a paradox to decentralization and network design.  It needs a control mechanism that binds the parts together, and for the Los Angeles Unified School District that means creating a big-tent organization that covers everyone.

(Next: Building an educational infrastructure.)

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