And the Winner Is? Who Knows?

04/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the contest to determine who will run the schools for 36,000 Los Angeles students, all the votes are in, except those that count. Over the last three weeks, school communities went to the polls. And two panels of expert reviewers have issued their opinions. Despite all the fireworks you've read about in the newspapers, these activities are just preliminary. Superintendent Ramon Cortines has promised a recommendation to the school board by Feb. 23, and then the sorting of winners and losers starts in earnest.

On Friday, Cortines asked people not to lobby him. Fat chance of that. There will be intense pressure on both the superintendent and board members, who every interest group will remind of past support, favors due, and support pending. The danger to the endgame is that attention to the unique, sometimes interestingly quirky, aspects of some proposals will be lost in favor of portfolio balancing that gives each of the interest groups enough of what they want so they do not obstruct actual operation of the schools.

But we know something about the sorting already. We know that community support was manufactured with attention to who was to run the schools rather than the particular educational design for each school. On the Eastside, for example, Inner City Struggle, long a voice for students in the community, supported all the Pilot School (essentially in-district charter) applications against those of the charter operators.

We know that charter school operators are unlikely to win the bidding for most of the newly constructed schools. The existing schools and United Teachers of Los Angeles have mounted a vigorous campaign against the charters, and in many cases have produced credible plans. Interestingly, in most of the highly contested schools, such as Barack Obama Middle School, and the Esteban Torres High School complex, the expert reviewers issued split decisions tossing the hot potato back to Cortines and the board.

We know that the Pilot School model has gained some traction. The pilot idea--school level control with teachers and administrators remaining district employees--began in Boston and was transported to Los Angeles a few years ago. It languished, in part held hostage to internal politics between the union and the District. But in response to the public school choice motion, UTLA and teacher groups have seized on it as a means to save their jobs and gain greater autonomy without leaving the District.

The Pilots will be an interesting experiment, perhaps game changing. They've received mixed reviews in other cities. But they represent the first time teachers within the District have stepped up to the plate and said, in effect, "We'll take (at least some) responsibility for a school's outcomes."

We also know that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is unlikely to take over many more schools. The mayor has a ledger full of red ink at City Hall, and the expert panels did not universally favor the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the organization that grew from his effort.

However, the sorting of winners and losers, is not the big historical story. When the Los Angeles Unified School District board passed the public school choice motion in August, it hoped to shake up the status quo. It hoped multiple providers would present competing ideas about what schools should teach and how. Instead, it got many providers packaging the same ideas. But the common ideas are highly significant and historically radical.

All the proposals sought high standards for all students, not just for white students or students who live in good neighborhoods or for a select "talented tenth." This is a highly radical notion. For most of the last century, public education was built around the idea of multiple standards. High ones for students with demonstrated ability; easier ones for others, who often included students of color. The famous Bell Curve sorted out students and consigned them to different futures.

There are many in the District who don't yet believe that all students can achieve at high levels, but the big politics of community expectations and institutional rules now require that schools organize around this notion. So, all the proposals promised to increase the numbers of students taking courses that would qualify students for California universities. They all promised to be "data driven," looking at student achievement during the school year and intervening where necessary before it is too late.

All of the proposals also promised some kind of small-school individualization for students. The instinct toward small schools and a network of providers is as historically radical as the notion of common, high standards. Public education in the last century was dominated by an economies-of-scale belief that bigger was better. In 1967 a planning task force for the District recommended an educational campus of 25,000 students, and, while it was never built, the size of existing schools swelled until the current school building program began a decade ago. Small-is-beautiful is the new conventional wisdom.

If these two characteristics are present in all the schools chosen, then Los Angeles Unified will have taken an important step in remaking itself as a 21st Century institution.