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Speak UP’s Katie Braude & Jenny Hontz: A fearless leader has the opportunity to make an enormous difference

Katie Braude and Jenny Hontz | February 19, 2018

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With declining enrollment, a looming fiscal crisis, and a persistent racial and socioeconomic achievement gap, LAUSD is at a critical juncture as it searches for a new superintendent to lead through turbulent times.

Many of us have witnessed decades of “reforms” that have had no significant impact on closing the achievement gap or addressing the systemic flaws at its root. The school board has the opportunity now to dramatically shift course and select a new leader with a bold vision to radically redesign the district and make the kinds of sweeping changes that insiders have so far resisted. And that leader must treat parents as full partners in shaping the policies that directly affect our kids.

The last time the board chose a superintendent, members emphasized consensus and insisted upon a unanimous choice. The new board that was elected last year, however, came in with a clear mandate for change. “Disruption” is the word of the moment, and we believe it’s apt. We need a change agent, and unanimity should not be the board’s primary concern.

Now is the time to seriously downsize and decentralize the district, bringing more local autonomy, equity, and accountability to all district schools. It’s time to expand and replicate schools that are working well for all kids — regardless of model — and make the hard choices to rework, consolidate or close schools that have been persistently failing for many years, despite additional resources provided.

Such changes must be made in a thoughtful way that won’t increase burdens on our city’s most impoverished families. But parents see the clear urgency, and they are not going to stick around to wait for change. We want a new leader with a strong strategic plan and a willingness to take risks to help all kids, turn around underperforming schools, and save LAUSD from insolvency.

We have seen no evidence that such a bold leader will emerge from within the district’s ranks. It’s understandable that people who have worked within a system for their entire careers can become inured to its flaws, defenders of incremental progress, and protective of their longtime colleagues.

But parents are tired of LAUSD’s tone of self-congratulation while so many kids graduate unprepared to succeed in college and careers. There’s a huge disconnect between what we hear from district leaders and the realities parents face on the ground at their kids’ schools. Parents are voting in massive numbers with their feet, and LAUSD has never really bothered to ask us why.

The district is losing 12,000 students a year — not only to charter schools but to nearby districts that many parents believe are more functional and responsive to their concerns. The loss of students equates to lost revenue at a time when costs for pensions and retiree healthcare benefits are rising dramatically.

The result is a massive structural deficit and a fiscal crisis that could lead to widespread class size increases, teacher layoffs and program cuts — or bankruptcy and state takeover. This is no time for tinkering at the margins. It’s no time for more hand-wringing and committees to study the problem. And yet that’s what we’re seeing from district leaders.

The recent healthcare deal negotiated with labor unions, for instance, perpetuates the status quo and demonstrates that LAUSD is unwilling to make the difficult changes needed to put our kids first. As a larger and larger proportion of educational dollars flows outside the classroom, more and more parents flee the system.

So far, LAUSD has failed to learn the lessons from their flight. Parents want change. We want better schools. We want the local autonomy to dismiss teachers who are ineffective and to protect and reward the excellent, hardworking teachers who may not have seniority. Parents want a more responsive system that listens to our views and concerns and then acts. Parents want a seat at the table and authentic power to make decisions for our kids.

Given such enormous challenges, some have asked: Who would take this job? Why would anyone want to preside over the dismantling of a massive bureaucracy amid intransigence from employee unions who have so far refused to face reality? The answer is: Do it for the kids.

We need a leader who won’t worry about his or her next job but will have the courage to do the right thing. A fearless leader has the opportunity to make an enormous difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, the majority of whom are kids of color living in poverty.

As we honor the life of our board member Shirley Ford, we continue to be called to action by her words: “There are still so many children being failed by low-performing schools that it makes me wonder whether black lives and brown lives really matter in our country. Many of the same schools that were failing kids in my neighborhood 20 years ago are still failing yet another generation of children today.”

It’s time to end that legacy of failure. Education is one of the greatest civil rights issues of our time, and we need a champion for the rights of children in charge.

California has the sixth-largest economy in the nation, and it’s a cutting-edge leader in nearly every area — except for education. LAUSD’s new leader has the opportunity to change that. Los Angeles is a progressive city and a hub of experimentation and creativity. There’s a deep and diverse talent base in areas such as the arts and technology. And we have enormous wealth and resources that someone who is open to outside contribution can tap into.

This city has frequently remade itself over the years, and there’s no reason why we cannot remake our schools for the 21st century. Angelenos are ultimately optimists, and LA parents stand ready to partner with a bold, visionary leader to get the job done. Let’s do it for the kids.

Katie Braude is executive director and Jenny Hontz is communications director of Speak UP, a grassroots parent organization in Los Angeles.

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