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Ray Cortines' Birthday Present

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Ray Cortines gave himself a birthday present last week. At age 78, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose remarkable energy has allowed him to persevere through in-your-face politics and spirit-crushing budget cutbacks, announced his intent to retire in the spring.

A transition is in the offing for the school district as well as an important stocktaking about what Cortines brought to LAUSD, about its current status, and about its trajectory.

A transition path has been created. Recently hired deputy superintendent, John Deasy will have the better part of a year to audition for the job. Deasy comes from the Gates Foundation and previously had served as superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu schools and the Prince George's County, Maryland schools. Deasy rolls into his $275,000 a year job pulling some interesting baggage. Opinions differ about whether he is certain to be Cortines replacement.

Stocktaking about the Cortines era has also begun. In a faint-praise editorial, the Los Angeles Times story lauded his legendary discipline and candor, but added: "In neither of his stints with Los Angeles Unified did he distinguish himself by instigating the kinds of sweeping reforms that Roy Romer brought about -- a historic school construction effort to ease terrible overcrowding and the revamping of the reading curriculum." The Times misses the point substantially.

The "Cortines effect" has been to move the district down a historic path to decentralization and variety in schooling. He follows in the footsteps of district reformers in the 1980s who sought a way of breaking down the massive bureaucracy and its culture of compliance rather than achievement. His efforts extend the work of the huge civic coalitions in the 1990s. And he built on the plan he drafted when interim superintendent in 2000. It was Romer who tried to move the district in the opposite direction, back toward centralization.

Decentralizing the district -- making it look more like a modern network-style organization and less like an early 20th century hierarchy -- is a necessary step toward meeting its student achievement expectations and reestablishing its reputation. LAUSD has been too big for a long time. It has about the same number of students as a small country -- Ireland or Scotland, for example. Its size makes it inefficient, breeds a politics of distrust and fosters an authority system built on compliance.

Over the last 20 years, public education in Los Angeles has added substantial variation in both the kinds of education available and the ways in which the schools are operated and controlled. More than a quarter of the schools in Los Angeles operate outside the traditional hierarchy or under special rules. There are nearly 160 charter schools that receive public funds but are not operated by the district. In addition, there are 172 magnet schools for which the district runs a sophisticated choice system to allocate places to the students who want to attend. Locke High School is run by the Green Dot charter management organization. The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which grew from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's unsuccessful effort to take over the district, operates 14 schools in the most troubled areas of the city. Ten pilot schools -- essentially in-district charters -- are in operation, and 15 or so will come on line this year.

These represent more variety in provision of public education than found in any public school district in the country and make Los Angeles the prime example of the idea that a school district should be built around a portfolio of schools, each trying to push the envelope of learning in slightly different ways. Good parts of the portfolio get resources to expand; underperforming parts are closed or reorganized.

But almost all of these efforts have been built around the core of the old highly centralized district. Cortines took on this centralized core. He restructured the central office around a small team dedicated to change. He moved the district toward a site-based budgeting system that, if fully implemented, will move dollars under the control of individual schools. The budgetary changes, in turn, will force attention to personnel issues, such as control of hiring and teacher transfer between schools.

He also skillfully used the opportunity presented by the school board's "Public School Choice" motion, which created a competitive process to operate newly constructed schools and to take over those that have repeatedly failed to meet achievement targets. For the first time in any U.S. school district, internal teams of teachers and administrators went head-to-head with charter management organizations and other external operators, including the organization started by Mayor Villaraigosa.

While others and I were disappointed that the school board did not pick what seemed to be strong proposals from charter school operators, the process was transparent and professional. A second round has been completed and a third is in the works. The unplanned benefit of the process has been the substantial expansion of the pilot school idea. Although time will tell whether these schools are effective, the process of forming them has already encouraged the most creative teachers and administrators and fostered cooperation between the district, the administrator's union, and United Teachers Los Angeles.

The process of decentralization, moving resources to the schools, deliberately creating variety among schools has been building in Los Angeles for more than two decades. Cortines gave it a big push forward. While there is a huge amount of work to be done, the district is headed in the right direction, and the substantial danger in Cortines retirement is that the unstable politics of Los Angeles will dish up a successor who wants to distinguish him or herself by reversing course.

Los Angeles needs a professional superintendent with a vision larger than his or her ego. In education reform circles, career superintendents are not in fashion right now. The media and education policy writers swoon before self-styled entrepreneurs and education czars who talk big, ignore history and count success according to how many teachers and principals they fired rather than whether students did better. LAUSD needs someone with a belief that building an effective organization is more important than swinging a big stick or buying a fix-it program from a vendor. It needs someone with deep craft skills, and it needs someone who understands that information technology is rapidly changing how students interact with and acquire knowledge.

But most of all, LAUSD needs someone who understands what city they're in. The politics of Los Angeles is not that of New York or Chicago. Our political world is that of changing and fragile coalitions. Chicago and New York are built on the remnants of long standing political machines and around mayors with strong powers. Both cities have a powerful business community, and as Dorothy Shipps' history of Chicago shows, a century-long connection between the business elite and public education. A powerful civic coalition may emerge around the new L.A. Compact, but it is not yet completely formed, so a new superintendent will have to both navigate an education world in which the district is being restructured and where there is fractious but potentially beneficial competition between district-run schools and those operated by charters and others. Through a series of disjointed decisions over many years, Los Angeles has effectively created a portfolio of schools model. The key is in recognizing what it has built and continuing in that pathway.

Throughout his tenure, Cortines has kept a relatively low profile. Unlike Michelle Rhee, the Washington, DC superintendent and current media darling, Cortines has not posed for a cover picture in Time. And unlike charter school founder Steve Barr he has not been the subject of a New Yorker profile. Like most career professionals, Cortines understood that school superintendents are much like sailboat skippers, who use the prevailing winds to take them where they wanted to go. The lesson for a successor is that superintendents seldom have the power to create the wind, and they never want to be the wind.