The Los Angeles Unified School District is one of the largest and most centralized in the country. It’s also a poor performer relative to cities like New York or Boston in terms of the academic achievement of the children it educates. Many are inclined to believe the conclusion of this LA Weekly exposé that a big part of the problem is union rules that make it essentially impossible to get rid of teachers for even egregiously bad performance—job security protection that goes far beyond what other civil servants have.
Meanwhile last summer the LA School Board adopted a Public School Choice initiative that as Rob Manwaring explains created a plan where “charter schools, Mayor Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (PLAS), the teacher union and the district itself would compete to operate not only a set of new schools just coming on line but also compete to run a set of the district’s lowest performing schools.” Charter advocates were, of course, hoping to get their hands on a bunch of new schools this way. But it didn’t quite turn out that way. Instead, 22 of the 30 schools allocated in the first round went to teacher-led efforts. The union says this will be its chance to prove the critics wrong:
The district’s 45,000-member teachers’ union saw charter schools as a threat that could hand more power to groups such as charter schools. Charter-school groups had hoped they would be able to expand their operations.
“We think it’s a victory for students and the collaboration between teachers and parents and administrators,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union. “The world is going to see what we’ve been saying all along: Give the authority to teachers and we will create quality schools.”
I wish them well. And I think it’s worth noting that if UTLA does succeed in creating schools that do better than their LAUSD predecessors, that part of the reason will be that the possibility of competition from charters seems to have given them a bit of a scare. The union put a lot of effort into getting the bulk of these schools assigned to UTLA rather than to charters, and for all the same reasons they had a strong incentive to do that they now have a strong incentive to put a lot of effort into showing some results. In the abstract at least most teachers prefer decentralization and more autonomy, and in situations like LA where centralization hasn’t delivered the goods they do deserve an opportunity to show that they know what needs to be done.
The LAUSD student population is inherently challenging, with a very large proportion of English language learners from poor families who almost certainly won’t do as well as kids from English-speaking middle class families, but there’s still tons of room for improvement here.