When the LAUSD Board voted last week to approve 12 new “pilot schools,” it was a small but positive sign of change in a school district long troubled by battles among key stakeholders about to how to best improve LA’s many underperforming schools and create successful new options.
Pilot schools are the most flexible of three “autonomy models” agreed to under a 2011 agreement between the district and the teachers union — a relatively new alternative to both semi-autonomous charter schools (that usually lack a collective bargaining agreement for teachers) and also to the parent trigger process (through which parents petition the district to implement changes).
Pilot schools aren’t generally the model favored by the teachers union, notes LAUSD’s Rachel Bonkovsky, who is helping to oversee implementation of the various autonomy models. “The union is pretty staunch in not favoring pilots,” she said.
But the school-level interest in creating pilots has been higher than expected. “Sometimes you hear the union central message, and you don’t hear what individual, local schools are saying,” Bonkovsky says.
A Hard-Fought Compromise
The three autonomy models are the result of a hard-fought agreement negotiated in late 2011 between LAUSD and the teachers union.
As a part of negotiations, Superintendent John Deasy modified the original Public School Choice (PSC) program, which had allowed outside operators like charters to submit bids to turn around failing LAUSD schools.
In return, the teachers union agreed to lift a previously negotiated 30-school cap on the expansion of “pilot schools” and signed off on the Local School Stabilization and Empowerment Initiative (LSSEI) agreement.
There are three different kinds of autonomy models as established by the LSSEI agreement: pilot schools, which offer the most flexibility as compared to a traditional district school; Local Initiative Schools (LIS), which offer moderate flexibility; and Expanded School-Based Model Management (ESBMM) schools, which differ somewhat from regular district schools, but in less dramatic ways.
Of the three autonomy models, pilots are the most flexible option because their teachers, though still represented by UTLA, must sign an “elect-to-work” contract that requires them to put in more hours on the job and participate in supplementary career training.
In addition to the 12 pilots approved in February, four more new pilots are also poised to go before the Board for approval in March.
Local Initiative Schools (LIS)
LIS schools have the power to customize their budgets, teaching methods, curriculum and testing, bell schedules, school organization, discipline rules, and health and safety plans.
While a LIS school can ask its teachers to sign a “commitment to the plan” that expects them to put in extra work and participate in professional development, the agreement doesn’t have the same enforcement power that pilot school elect-to-work agreements have.
Anywhere between five to 10 LIS proposals are expected to be submitted for approval to the district; the final tally depends on how many schools are able to get a 60 percent approval vote from their teachers union-represented staff.
Expanded School-Based Model Management (ESBMM Schools)
ESBMM schools have a more limited set of options they can customize, which include their budgets, staff selection and professional development expectations, curriculum, and bell schedule.
Three applications for ESBMM schools are currently being considered for final approval by Superintendent Deasy; he’s expected to reach a decision in the next month.
Of the three models, ESBMM schools have the least potent reform options, according to Bonkovsky. This is the model that is most favored by the union, as demonstrated by the recent joint press conference UTLA hosted with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) at Woodland Hills Academy, the first school in LAUSD to transform into an ESBMM school, back in 2006.
Pilot proposals outnumber LIS and ESBMM proposals because teachers recognize the perks the pilot model offers, Bonkovsky says: “Even though a teacher has to sign an elect to work agreement, they have a lot of power over it; they get to vote on what goes in [the agreement] each year. And on the site, teachers have a lot of say in their evaluations. So it’s a nice check and balance system.”
Greg Fisher, a teacher at Narbonne High School in the Harbor City area of LA, is one of the leaders of his Small Learning Community’s plan to transform into a pilot school this year. He says the tradeoff of a thinner union contract was worth it because it gives teachers “flexibility and autonomy where the district won’t have much say. Within parameters, we have a lot more control than ever before.”
Fisher concedes, however, that the pilot school model isn’t for everyone: “If there’s a teacher who wants to hide behind the LAUSD-UTLA contract, or if there are teachers who want to do as little as possible, a pilot is not for them.”