President Obama Visits Model School Choice Program in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Daily News reports on President Obama’s visit today to the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, a downtown high school that is part of the Belmont Zone of Choice.

President Barack Obama is expected to discuss his proposed budget with more than 1,000 Angelenos today at a downtown high school that illustrates many of his goals for education reform while highlighting the financial pressures facing Los Angeles schools.

Miguel Contreras Learning Complex is touted as a model of urban-education reform for its smaller classes, increased autonomy and innovative programs – ideals delineated by the president in an education speech last week.

The school is also set to lose half of its teachers and a large portion of its administrators next year, and only half of its seniors graduate in four years. The contrast makes it challenging, said Monica Garcia, president of the Los Angeles Unified school board.

“He came to the right place. … (The area) is the cradle of reform at LAUSD,” Garcia said. “There is great challenge here, but also great opportunity.”

Opened in 2006, Miguel Contreras is an experiment in creating small learning communities out of large urban campuses. Serving about 2,000 students, teachers work under modified union contracts that give them more decision-making power. The school also has more flexibility on how it spends its money.

Such innovation drew young teachers and administrators who ironically are now targeted for layoff for lack of seniority.

The Pilot Schools represented by Miguel Contreras Learning Complex signify a fundamentally different approach to transforming urban public education: provide schools with maximum control over their resources in exchange for increased accountability, all within the economies of scale of an urban school district. In Los Angeles, by virtue of a unique memorandum of understanding between LAUSD, UTLA, AALA and the Belmont Educational Collaborative, Pilot Schools have charter-like control over budget, staffing, curriculum, governance, and schedule.[i]

In the Pilot model, both the district and the unions agree to allow approved Pilot Schools to be free from constraints in order to be more innovative. Pilot Schools are exempt from district policies and mandates. Teachers who work in Pilot Schools are exempt from teacher union contract work rules, while still receiving union salary, benefits, and accrual of seniority within the district. Teachers voluntarily choose to work at Pilot Schools; when hired, they sign what is called an “elect-to-work agreement,” which stipulates the work conditions in the school for the coming school year. This agreement is revisited and revised annually.

Unfortunately, teachers who work in these schools are still subject to overall district rules when it comes to teacher layoffs. If these teachers and administrators are laid off (which is a big if), they will be victims of the destructive last hired, first fired policy used by the majority of school districts in the United States. Education is probably the only industry around that does not consider any skill, merit, or need as part of the decision and simply downsizes the workforce based on the date the employee was hired. While the flat contract between the district, union, and, the pilot schools represents an improvement over the existing UTLA contract, principals do not have true discretion over their staffs, if they do not have a say-so in which employees will be let go.

[i] Memorandum of Understanding Between Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles, Belmont Pilot Schools Agreement, February 22, 2007,$!2b+Schools/SOE/SOE+-+FOS/Belmont+Zone+of+Choice+Agreement.pdf.