Outside operators to run 250 LA Unified schools

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In spite of strong opposition from its powerful teachers’ union, the seven-member Los Angeles Unified school board approved a plan yesterday to hand over control of about one-third of its schools to outside operators. KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has the story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Before the vote, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rallied supporters of the plan who'd gathered outside school district headquarters. He told the crowd of about 1,500 people that the Public School Choice plan would create schools with innovative curricula and lots of parent involvement.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: Say it again. We believe in you. That’s why we’ve come together, we’ve come together because we believe it’s time for parents to have a say in our schools.

Guzman-Lopez: Charter school operators stand to gain the most from the reform. It opens for charter governance 50 newly-built campuses and about 200 of the district’s chronically under-performing schools. Charter companies bused most of the people to the rally. Organizers said the event cost about $30,000.

Inside school board chambers, labor union leaders agreed that the schools need improvement, but they said they’re concerned the plan doesn’t guarantee labor contracts for school employees.

Board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who wrote the governance plan, responded that employee concerns need to get in line after more pressing problems.

Yolie Flores Aguilar: In my two years here I have observed that there is no sense of urgency or collective outrage about the crisis in our schools. Where only one-third of our third graders can read at third grade level, where far too many students drop out of school, and a dismal number are prepared for a decent job or to go on to college.

Guzman-Lopez: During nearly four hours of debate, opponents of the measure claimed that it would create private campuses that would exclude some students. Supporters argued that the plan would sprout more intimate learning centers where innovation could take root. Six board members approved the measure. One voted "no."

Now it's up to Superintendent Ramon Cortines to determine which nonprofits can apply to run the campuses, how these schools will select students, and who will staff them. Board member Richard Vladovic said Cortines should also mend fences with opponents to the plan.

Richard Vladovic: I have confidence in this man right here, that he’s going to do what’s right for our kids and he’s going to bring people along.

Guzman-Lopez: The strongest opponent of the Public School Choice plan, teachers union president A.J. Duffy, said he’d go to court to stop the Superintendent from moving forward with it.

A.J. Duffy: The constitution of the state of California says you cannot give those schools away.

Guzman-Lopez: That’s a reference to a schools reform plan Mayor Villaraigosa wrote four years ago. At the time, he'd hoped to gain some control over L.A. Unified schools. Duffy and the school district successfully challenged it in court.

In a news conference after the vote, the mayor proclaimed victory alongside two board members – the one who'd written the motion and the board president. Villaraigosa added:

Villaraigosa: I would hope that Mr. Duffy, instead of engaging in a protracted lawsuit, would sit down and work with us. I can tell you that there’s not a person here, and I’m prepared to stand alongside of them, that’s going to be intimidated by a lawsuit.

Guzman-Lopez: One education researcher called this the deepest reform effort L.A. Unified’s taken on since the school district gave some campuses a high degree of autonomy 16 years ago. A lack of money hobbled that effort, the researcher said, and in spite of the current budget crunch the Public School Choice plan might demonstrate that creating new schools with decentralized governance is an effective way to improve public education.

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