The Los Angeles teachers union overwhelmingly ratified a landmark agreement that gives the district's individual campuses the freedom of charter schools, but also holds them accountable for how well students perform.
United Teachers Los Angeles announced Thursday that nearly 70 percent of the 19,500 members who cast ballots voted in favor of the School Stabilization and Empowerment Initiative. About 35,600 of the union's members were eligible to vote.
The three-year agreement requires administrators and teachers at low-performing schools to draft improvement plans, but also gives any campus the option of signing on if it gets the approval of 70 percent of its teachers.
A school can now seek waivers from such district policies as those governing schedules, curriculum and teaching methods. Principals will also have the ultimate authority in deciding on school staffing.
However, the district and union can step in if the school founders or fails to achieve specified benchmarks.
"This is the promising first step toward stabilizing things," UTLA President Warren Fletcher said in a phone interview after announcing the unofficial results.
"It's the district moving away from its love affair with all things external. It's coming back to the realization that the solution comes from within."
Superintendent John Deasy did not return phone calls.
"These powerful reforms can be available upon by all schools in LAUSD," he said. "We need to listen to them and evaluate them fairly and, when they're doing well, we need to get out of their way."
The initiative replaces the Public School Choice program, which for nearly three years had allowed charters and nonprofit organizations to bid to operate troubled schools and new campuses.
Under the initiative, campuses that had been included the third round of PSC will begin devising plans in January to improve student achievement.
Those plans are set to be implemented in 2012-13, the same school year that campuses in the fourth and fifth rounds of Public School Choice and other low- performing schools will begin working on their improvement proposals.
In 2013-14, the second-tier plans will be implemented, and any other school interested in joining can submit their transformation proposals.
"This is my happiest day as a board member," Steve Zimmer said.
"This is the type of change and transformation that is going to change public education from a centralized, bureaucratic system to a system where the people who know our kids the best are making decisions.
"This is absolutely historic," he continued. "It involves everybody setting aside traditional adversarial roles and linking arms and taking a collaborative leap together."
Fletcher and Zimmer concurred that a key to the success of the initiative will be allocating sufficient and appropriate resources to the schools. With the nation's second-largest district already projecting a $532 million deficit for 2012-13, and more state budget cuts looming, policy makers will be facing difficult choices in how to divide resources.
"We need to have the courage to direct resources locally, just as we had the courage to give the schools authority locally," Zimmer said.
But Fletcher went further, saying he hoped the lines of communication that opened between the district and the union in developing the initiative can be utilized during discussions about the the district's finances.
Rather than going through a process he likened to a "kabuki dance - long and involved and dramatic," Fletcher said he wants to have a "constructive, adult dialogue" on the budget and other potentially contentious issues.
Looking ahead to the initiative process that will begin when school resumes after winter break, Fletcher paraphrased a quote by political organizer Saul Alinsky that he has posted on the wall of his office: "`The price of a successful campaign is a constructive alternative,' he said. "It's on us now, and we're ready to do it."
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