Education

LAUSD teachers approve reforms to campus autonomy


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Los Angeles Unified’s teachers’ union announced Thursday that its members have overwhelmingly approved a contract with the school district that will grant individual campuses more control over the way they operate. The Board of Education now gets to vote on it. Teachers this week considered the changes.

The top leaders of the teachers union and the school district negotiated the changes.

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy stumped for the reforms last week on the school district’s TV station. The changes will be in place for three years.

They include a moratorium on the practice of forcing all employees of a low-performing campus to re-apply for their jobs. The reforms also block charter school operators from taking over new or low-performing schools through a 2-year-old program known as Public School Choice.

Deasy said the most significant changes involve allowing school staffs to make their own decisions on curricula and budgeting. "Teachers know students better. They know far better than we do at the central office," Deasy said, "and they know them better than the central administration in the teachers union. We believe that parents build a relationship at schools, they don’t build one with the district, and professionals build the relationship with the students."

The television program included teacher Sujata Bhatt, who wasn’t completely sold on the idea. "We want the freedom to innovate, but we have to come in with a little bit of wariness because in the past the district has promised freedoms and they haven’t been lived up to."

Superintendent Deasy responded that L.A. Unified’s central office will have to support each campus with teacher training and connections with universities. The goal, Deasy said, is to unleash the power of school professionals.

Teacher James Encinas engaged fourth-grade students during a reading lesson at a Venice elementary school. His colleague Gary Robbins considers L.A. Unified a crippled, failing institution that doesn’t do enough to unleash the power of professionals like Encinas.

"We’re sitting right now where 25 years ago there were 39 sixth graders — 39. The teacher’s name was Marion Van Arsdale. She was an elderly lady, wore a long black dress, and presented a curriculum, and the students sat quietly, enraptured with everything she said," Encinas said. "I’d come in over and over again trying to figure out, what is Marion doing, what is the magic that she’s got these 39 kids, and she was like a conductor at the symphony — we’re going to go this way, and they’d go this way, we’re going to go that way, we’re going to go that way."

Robbins and Encinas believe that more kids would learn if the district paid more attention to what teachers teach, why they teach it, and how students respond. The teachers contend that mandates from L.A. Unified’s central office keep that from happening. They’d like to see fellow teachers carve out regular time for team teaching and for sharing best practices.

Education researcher Charles Kerchner says the promise of autonomy for L.A. Unified teachers doesn’t break new ground. "Decentralization was a big deal in Los Angeles in the 1990s in what was called the 'Learn era.' More than half the schools in the district signed up for a decentralization plan. But it too was ultimately abandoned."

He says that’s because the district leadership changed. Kerchner adds that the research doesn’t support the claim that giving teachers at each campus control over curriculum and finances guarantees that learning will improve.

United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher is happy that charter schools won’t be able to assume control of new and low-performing campuses. He’s less enthusiastic about the autonomy reforms.

"How this thing rolls out, the proof will be in the pudding," Fletcher said, "and UTLA remains vigilant as this thing rolls out because we want an agreement that stabilizes schools, we want an agreement that makes instructional sense, and we will be watching closely."

As all of L.A. Unified’s 800 campuses become eligible for autonomy, the school district will phase in the reforms over three years. The school board could approve the first campus autonomy plans next fall.

Correction: This story originally referred to value added test scores, which weren't involved in the new deal.