Tough times and tough questions face the Los Angeles Unified School District: slashed budgets have caused teacher and staff layoffs, increased class sizes, and cancellation of arts and career training courses; test scores are low and drop-out rates high; conflict over evaluations threatens the relationship between teachers and the district; and it’s a constant challenge to reach parents who want to be involved but struggle with busy schedules or language barriers. With nearly 700,000 K-12 students in the second largest school district in the nation, all parties involved are feeling the urgent need for reform, though new measures under Superintendent John Deasy’s purview have bolstered confidence in the district’s seriousness about change. Officials, teachers, parents and students will face these challenges head-on as kids file into the classroom for the new academic year.
One issue likely to raises hackles and concerns on all sides will be the state of LAUSD’s delicate negotiations with UTLA over teacher contracts, evaluation, and rehiring. The statewide budget crisis led to sharp cuts in the beleaguered school district’s funding for next year, which in turn led to the layoffs of more than 3,000 teachers, furlough days and scrapped summer and extracurricular programs. Supt. Deasy has proposed a series of changes to existing employment contracts and is piloting a teacher evaluation program with more than 1,000 educators and 104 schools participating, in the hopes that its new procedures will yield more accurate indications of teaching quality and get the green light for implementation in the 2012-2013 school year. UTLA, which sought an injunction against the pilot program that fell through earlier this year, has yet to agree to the suggestions. Many of the teachers the union represents are especially opposed to the “value-added” evaluative approach, which incorporates student test scores into assessments of teacher quality. LAUSD and UTLA are also locked in a dispute over rehiring practices, which have been somewhat complicated by the mandates of a state bill called AB 114 and the expected loss of $100 million revenue that the district will sustain due to declining enrollment.
Obstacles to parental involvement in the school system will probably remain a cause for dissension too. The challenge of dealing with a prodigious bureaucracy and of communication between teachers and parents for whom English is not a primary language has limited parents’ engagement in their kids’ education and put some minorities at a disadvantage, advocacy groups say. Many parents are also upset over the transient nature of the various reforms that the district has put into effect over the years, wondering whether any of those steps truly improved their children’s education. And LAUSD’s students themselves, who face over-crowded classrooms and limited educational resources on a daily basis, cite bad teaching, ineffective disciplinary procedure, and the infrequency of communication between school staff, parents and teachers as further barriers to effective learning. With all of these conflicting views about what to change and how to change it, agreement seems like a distant possibility.
But despite the bleak situation, a few laudable improvements have brightened prospects for change in other sectors. The district has made some surprising gains in student achievement over the past year, with modest increases in standardized test scores and graduation rates that have left parents pleased and charter school reformists bewildered. Though LAUSD’s test scores still lag behind the statewide averages, a recent analysis conducted by the Los Angeles Times revealed that LAUSD schools’ results significantly superseded those of many underperforming schools that had been recently taken over by charter operations. Eight underperforming schools have been overhauled since Deasy became superintendent in April, while successful agreements with various employee unions over increased furlough days prevented about half of the layoffs expected for this year. The district has also revamped its school menu by banning sugary milk and introducing more vegetarian options in an effort to combat the nation-wide obesity epidemic, much to the approval of many parents and health organizations. Parents of LAUSD students scored a victory as well in the recent passage of the “parent trigger law,” which gives parents the power to petition for changes in staff and management at schools that consistently underperform. Since all of these changes taking place over the past year, could next year be packed with similar advances, or will district officials become mired in endless disagreement? With so many conflicting efforts for reform steep budget cuts in the mix, what does the future have in store for the nation’s second-largest school district? Which changes will be made first, and how will they satisfy those invested in Los Angeles’ public education system?