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Theories of Devolution 

Two draft plans for LA Unified would divide the district into dozens of smaller entities

Wednesday, Apr 12 2006
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Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is weighing whether to pursue a dramatic devolution of power at L.A. Unified, giving local schools a much greater say over classroom spending but also carving up the district into dozens of smaller sub-districts — a concept that immediately drew howls of protest from the teachers union.

Two different drafts of Villaraigosa’s public school reform plan — both crafted over the past three weeks — call for selling off the L.A. Unified headquarters at 333 S. Beaudry Ave. and giving power to as many as 80 local superintendents, each of whom would oversee mini-districts containing between 8,000 and 20,000 students. The local superintendents would report to four general managers, who in turn would answer to the superintendent, according to the two proposals.

United Teachers Los Angeles president A.J. Duffy blasted the idea, saying L.A. Unified already has an excessive number of mini-districts. Duffy said his union would rather move in the other direction, giving power to local campuses while converting the eight remaining sub-districts into five “service areas.”

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“I think that a plan that would involve 80 mini-districts would be an incredible bureaucratic boondoggle,” he said. “Think of the number of bureaucrats they’re going to have to hire to run 80 districts.”

Villaraigosa would not confirm whether he is going to embrace a proposal for dozens of mini-districts, saying that the plan is still a work in progress and that any element could be kept or dropped in the weeks leading up to its unveiling. “I can tell you as a general principle that we need to decentralize the district,” he added. “I can tell you that much.”

The proposal for dozens of mini-districts has appeared on two drafts of the mayor’s school plan, a 32-page document from March 28 and a 43-page draft developed on April 4. The earlier version calls for 70 to 80 sub-districts, while the later version proposes 50 to 100 sub-districts — now relabeled as clusters. Both drafts calls for only 10 percent of district funds to go toward overhead, and both would nearly double the number of L.A. Unified campuses from 760 to between 1,400 and 1,480 — a move meant to reduce the number of seats at each school to roughly 500.

The UTLA has long fought to reduce the number of mini-districts, succeeding two years ago in dropping the number from 11 to eight. On Monday, one day before Villaraigosa’s State of the City speech, the union plans to unveil its own reform plan, which would give school board members full-time salaries while offering individual schools greater say over district matters.

While Duffy warned that dozens of sub-districts would create tiny “haves and have nots” across L.A. Unified, advocates of charter schools praised Villaraigosa and said a massive devolution of power is long overdue. “Everything in American life is moving toward decentralization, and moving decisions close to the clients and the people being served,” said Steve Barr, founder and CEO of Green Dot Public Schools. “Those are not only good models for business, but also good models for democracy.”

Dividing the district into much smaller pieces is a concept that has been embraced by key political and educational leaders for nearly two years. Former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg influenced last year’s mayoral election by running on a platform to break up the district. During that campaign, former Mayor Richard Riordan — who endorsed Hertzberg in the primary — said a breakup would only work if L.A. Unified was carved into as many as 40 or 50 pieces. In December, former school board member Mark Slavkin told an education reform panel that he too believed the district should be broken into 40 or 50 districts, each with a single high school and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it.

Villaraigosa’s draft reform plan was titled “Choosing Our Future” in late March but retitled “Taking Back Our Schools” a week later. Both characterize the district as a “broken and anachronistic system” and include lengthy descriptions dropout rates, lagging test scores and other scholastic woes.

Still unclear, however, is how much power the local school sites will ultimately receive. While the earlier draft of Villaraigosa’s plan promised to give schools “clear and explicit decision-making rights over budget, hiring, staffing, curriculum and calendar,” the later version said local school campuses would select a curriculum from a menu of options supplied by the district and negotiate compacts that dictate union work rules. “Given the large number of failing schools, many schools will have to be reconstituted with new leadership teams, new designs, and possibly new school names,” the later version states.

Superintendent Roy Romer has strongly opposed efforts to devolve district power, saying L.A. Unified increased test scores over six years by relying on a centralized system that tracks achievement. In a speech last week, Romer warned that district principals change campuses too frequently to be given so much power, saying they “can’t generate, on their own, this kind of systemized rigor without help.”

“I simply do not believe that in a district where I have 800 schools, that I can have 800 curriculums,” he said. “We need to benchmark our progress against each other. We need to have some collective expectations.”

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