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Snatching Outrage From the Jaws of Victory

04/24/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Superintendent Ramon Cortines has made everyone angry. His recommendation for who should run 30 Los Angeles schools gave each of the competing organizations a little, but everyone has a grievance. Demonstrations are planned before, during, and after the Los Angeles Unified School District board meets on Tuesday.

Expect a battle of tee-shirted warriors. Wearing red, United Teachers Los Angeles plans a pre-dawn vigil in front of the school district headquarters, and its members are urged to pack the board meeting. Charter school supporters, wearing white, also have demonstration plans but they haven't telegraphed their punches.

So, what's the fuss about? In August, the Los Angeles Unified School District board passed a resolution known as Public School Choice. It subjected 18 new schools and 12 chronically underperforming ones to a request-for-proposal process. Some of the school buildings, such as the new Esteban Torres complex on the Eastside, were divided into smaller semi-autonomous Small Learning Communities, so, in total, proposals were received for 41 different schools. Reviews by educational experts and a public advisory vote followed. Results were posted on the District's web site.

UTLA argues that Public School Choice amounts to a giveaway. Every good socialist knows that government-run means public employees delivering public services. Except that it doesn't. Over the last 40 years both conservative governments and social democracies have increasingly thought of public services being delivered using a mixture of tools: direct provision, contracting out, mandates, and incentives for people to behave in socially conscious ways.

Medicare, for example, is a government sponsored service with mandated participation but delivered by employees of private but highly regulated organizations. California often uses private contractors instead of state workers to build our roads, but public employees police them. Public employees administer state parks, but private contractors operate the lodges and restaurants in them. It controls air pollution partly by regulation and partly with incentives. Deciding on the boundary line is a substantive matter, but it's not a new one.

Los Angeles Unified has been making these decisions for years. It contracts out some special education services. It provides direct public-employee-delivered services to some private schools. Most importantly, it relies almost exclusively on private firms for the design of its curriculum. In essence, it outsourced its intellectual core.

This boundary line changed slowly over decades. In the 1920s-1950s, hundreds of LAUSD employees designed and wrote the curriculum. Now, it purchases whole instructional packages from outside firms: not just the textbooks but also the plans for implementation and sometimes oversight consultation. Tens of millions of dollars are involved. (Hence, the flap last week over Superintendent Cortines' board membership on one of these firms.)

But Public School Choice signals a new and important moving of the boundary between public and private. It signals a breakdown in the old hierarchy and the establishment of a "portfolio of schools" model of organization. Under this notion of public service, the job of the district is to assemble the best collection of schools it can. It will run some of them itself, contract out others, shut down the ones that don't work well, encourage promising startups. This is a radical change from the traditional civil service model that not only establishes a greater relationship with charters and external operators, but also increases the public scrutiny of their results.

Departure from the old hierarchy deeply challenges the public employee unions, including UTLA. The most immediate threat is that Public School Choice will take some teaching jobs out of the bargaining unit because teachers in charter schools are either non-union or belong to a different union. More fundamentally, the whole logic of industrial unionism is built around a single employer and an identified set of jobs with attached wages and work rules. It signals a huge necessary transition for teacher unions.

But UTLA has lost very little under Public School Choice, and it may have gained a lot. Of the 18 newly constructed schools, Cortines' recommendation favored arrangements staffed by teachers in the existing bargaining unit in 13 schools. He also recommended a hybrid operation in two schools, where some of the teachers would be represented by UTLA. Only two sites would be run entirely by charter management organizations: Aspire and Camino Nuevo.

Of the 12 underperforming schools, called Focus Schools by the District, only Carver Middle School would be turned over to an outside administration: the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools founded by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Which brings us to the fate of charter operators generally in this competition. Looking at the numbers, they fared badly. Cortines recommended only seven of the 39 proposals by charter schools or charter management organizations. Reaction in the charter community ranges from outrage to mild optimism. "We are pleased that some of the strongest of the charter organizations were chosen. We've also taken some lessons from the process. We will be back," said Myrna Castrejón, senior vice president of the California Charter Schools Association.

In the contest with the charters, though, UTLA and the school district provided vivid proof that they could compete with the best of them. The school designs they proposed were not radical, but they were interesting and coherent.

In addition, UTLA strongly advanced the idea of Pilot Schools, which are essentially in-district charter schools with a strong dose of teacher self-governance. It's this latter characteristic that may transform school operations. Recasting teachers' jobs as members of a producer's cooperative is radically different than seeing them as industrial workers at the low end of a hierarchy.

All in all, UTLA ought to be holding a victory dance rather than a vigil.