Political Notebook

L.A. new front in education war

California’s war over the direction of its 6-million-student public school system is being waged on many fronts.

Education reformers and civil rights groups battle the education establishment over how billions of school dollars should be spent, how (and if) educators should be held accountable for outcomes, how much power parents should have, whether alternate models, such as charter schools, should be encouraged, and myriad other specific issues.

They are clashing in the Legislature, in the electoral arena (such as last year’s duel over the state superintendent of schools), in the state Board of Education, in the courts, and in many local school boards.

A big and perhaps decisive battle is brewing in the state’s largest – and in many ways, most troubled – school district, Los Angeles Unified.

It’s a microcosm of the state’s educational woes, particularly the disturbingly low academic achievements of Latino and black students, and a radical proposal to shift half of its students into charter schools in hopes of improving outcomes is shaping up as a clash of titans.

On one side is the Broad Foundation, whose founder, Eli Broad, is the archetypical California education reformer – a very wealthy Democrat who believes that the school system is failing kids and needs a kick in the keister.

On the other are United Teachers of Los Angeles and its allies on the school board, particularly its president, Steve Zimmer, who contend that Broad and other reformers, particularly the advocates of charters, are destroying public education.

Although L.A. Unified has more kids in charter schools than any other American school district, 100,000-plus, they are only about 16 percent of enrollment.

The Broad Foundation proposes a $490 million plan to shift half of the district’s students into charters, public schools that are exempt from many of the detailed rules governing regular schools and tend to have nonunion staffs.

“The overall vision is that every child has access and every family has access to a high-quality education,” Broad Foundation executive director Gregory McGinity said during a public airing of the plan this month. “We have to find a way to give better options to families, and we have to do that as soon as we can.”

Zimmer, however, said the adoption of the Broad plan could doom the school district financially by sucking away resources.

L.A. Unified already faces projections of large budget deficits, largely due to salary and benefit promises to teachers and other employees that revenue is unlikely to support.

“It draws us to a very honest and open place about the future of Los Angeles Unified School District,” Zimmer told the forum. “This is about: Is there a future for L.A. Unified.”

Broad himself has described the plan as “a landmark opportunity (that) would address the needs of families who have been underserved by public schools for years, if not generations. It would also be a bellwether for cities across the country.”

The latter statement is a clue to the import of the clash in Los Angeles. If the nation’s second largest school district (after New York City) were to take such a bold plunge into nontraditional education, it could be point-set-match for the school reform movement and a huge blow to the business-as-usual education establishment.