LAUSD Must Resist Mandates That Restrict Flexibility And Increase Inequality
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LAUSD Must Resist Mandates That Restrict Flexibility And Increase Inequality

LAUSD is facing a fiscal cliff.

Half a million students are being impacted by the first strike by Los Angeles Unified School District teachers in 30 years. Negotiations are complicated by the district’s financial crisis, which includes enrollment losses, unsustainable debt obligations, and a staffing surge.  LAUSD needs to strike a deal that lays the groundwork to long-term financial stability, grapples with its looming crisis and improves educational outcomes.

The district is facing more than $19 billion in financial liabilities and its cash reserves are projected to be exhausted within a few years. Yet, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the union representing the district’s more than 30,000 teachers, is thus far holding to its demands of an immediate 6.5 percent salary raise for all teachers, lower class sizes—which would require more teachers, and additional support staff positions such as librarians, counselors and nurses.

Naturally, much of the debate is focused on whether the district can afford the teachers’ wish list. But there’s another critical question that’s not being asked at all: why are a handful of union and district officials deciding how to spend so many education dollars in the first place?

A common myth is that public school principals are CEOs of their schools, with autonomy to allocate resources based on the school’s priorities and to make staffing and spending decisions. But the reality is much different. Most school principals are treated more like middle managers with limited budgetary authority and little room to innovate. In fact, school principals typically control just one-to-five percent of their schools’ budgets.

In reality, key resource allocation decisions are typically made at a school district’s central office and collective bargaining table. LAUSD’s most recent agreement with UTLA—a 430-page behemoth—for example, outlines even the most minuscule of details, including the number of meetings teachers can attend each month and the specific structure of their professional development. These top-down mandates frustrate principals and stifle teachers.

A key point of the negotiations focuses on the number of students per class. The conventional wisdom asks, shouldn’t every school leader want additional staff and smaller class sizes? Absent spending constraints smaller class sizes might be desirable, but LAUSD and other public school districts don’t have unlimited resources. Thus, tradeoffs must be made over how scarce taxpayer dollars are spent.

The key consideration should be: Who gets to make the decisions on these tradeoffs?  For instance, UTLA’s most recent proposal last week called for LAUSD to provide each school with a restorative justice advisor, dean, or psychiatric social worker for every 500 students enrolled. A school might not need those positions or might have more pressing needs in other areas, say, a reading interventionist or classroom technology. These mandates, while seemingly beneficial, don’t necessarily address a school’s priorities.

Allocating resources based on rigid staffing ratios also creates inequities. For example, a school with 1,000 students would receive two position allotments under the union’s plan, while a school with 999 students would only receive one. In this scenario, the smallest difference in enrollment, one student, has a large effect on the resources a school receives, thus shortchanging the latter principal and his/her students.

Principals tend to have a better idea of what’s best for their campus’ students—more so than central office officials— and should be empowered to make locally-responsive decisions in exchange for outcomes-based accountability. Rather than doubling-down on requirements that dictate how a school’s resources are used, district and union officials should adopt policies that push dollars, not staffing positions, down to principals.

Large school districts, including Denver Public Schools and Boston Public Schools, have adopted student-based budgeting that ensures more education funding follows children to the schools and classrooms they’re in. Given LAUSD’s enormous size, it is the second largest school district in the country, this policy reform would greatly aid efforts to increase funding fairness and boost outcomes at low-performing schools.

LAUSD is facing a fiscal cliff. School principals, teachers, and parents should all want to make sure that any deal addresses where spending decisions are made and empowers individual principals and teachers to serve their students.

This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.

Aaron Garth Smith is the director of education reform at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.