The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the country's second largest in terms of enrollment, with almost 690,000 students and approximately 650 schools across eight districts.
Since 2006 LAUSD has been running a limited pilot schools program that enabled ten semi-autonomous small schools to expanded flexibility to school and community leaders. Similar to the pilot schools in Boston, pilots in Los Angeles remain part of the unified school district and teachers are both employees of the district and members of the union.
Under a 2009 district board Public School Choice reform plan, outside operators and partners are invited to bid to operate up to a third of the district’s schools.
LAUSD already uses multiple platforms to create schools, including pilot schools, chartered schools, and magnet schools. The reform plan pertains to newly-created schools, of which there will be 50 over the years 2010-2013, and all students in schools with “3+” status, a classification pertaining to failing qualification under No Child Left Behind. There were over 200 schools in that category in 2009 when the resolution was approved. Between one-quarter and two-thirds of district schools up for competitive bid.
Those doing the bidding for schools must have 501(c)3 legal status, operate publicly, and be open to all students, though not necessarily equally: restrictions are imposed on student composition as the schools are required to make an effort to reflect those schools they replaced. The schools are also restricted in their capacity to innovate, as all proposals must be able to demonstrate the soundness of their schools through research-based strategies.
Having first resisted the contracting arrangement, then reluctantly acquiescing to it, members of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the union local, have chosen to seize the opportunity to try and enter a management role of schools. They see it as an opportunity to improve the job of their members.
In 2009 UTLA and LAUSD struck a deal to allow the number of pilot schools in the district to increase from ten to thirty, anticipating that the ability to create semi-autonomous schools with central office support would better position teachers to compete with chartered school operators for the Public School Choice reform plan.
“This resolution has, in fact, re-energized our faculty,” one teacher has been quoted as saying, “forcing us to turn inwards, reevaluate what we are doing and how we can make things better for our students.”
Another teacher, remarking that this authority over what happens in their school is “the power that teachers have always been asking for,” understood that “With power comes responsibility. We are accountable for the results, and I don’t mind that.”
Some of the main petitioners for school contracts are chartered operators such as Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, Synergy Academies, Green Dot, and others.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been a key advocate for the new district policy, arguing for the structural change because LAUSD, one of the most challenged districts in the country, had made limited progress and shows no sign of improving. Villaraigosa’s pressure on the district is of particular note because the mayor is a former organizer for UTLA union.
Daily operations of the schools are scheduled to turn over to the new operators by the start of the 2010 academic year. Los Angeles Unified, and the teachers of UTLA, are representing the most bold shift yet by districts and unions toward opening the district system. The next question is to what degree changes will be allowed to start, and grow. It is a trend worth watching.
LAUSD board resolution (2009): Public School Choice
*Image: Logo, City Board of Directors, LAUSD