We are at a pivotal moment in Los Angeles. Public education reform is top-of-mind across the region, and the momentum for dramatic change is palpable. We are tackling head-on the reality that our public schools are not adequately preparing our youth for 21st century jobs, a fatal flaw in L.A.'s potential ascendance as one of the world's great cities.
We are in the process of completing the largest public works project in world history, spending $19 billion to build 160 new public schools and relieve overcrowding after decades of neglect. But we look inside our schools and see that half our fourth graders aren't reading at grade level, and somewhere between 30-50 percent of our high school students are dropping out. We know it's time for massive reforms, no less epic than our school-building campaign, but infinitely more complex and demanding of community dialogue.
The choice may not be between mayoral control or the status quo , it's probably somewhere in between, and it's definitely too soon to tell. Some fundamental questions need to be addressed before a decision is made. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's passion for reforming our schools should inspire an authentic, intellectually honest discussion about Los Angeles Unified School District. But we've learned from other cities that in order for us to succeed, the mayor alone should not drive the debate. Change led from outside the educational bureaucracy has worked, but only when it's a broad, consensus-driven coalition.
The L.A. Area Chamber is profoundly committed to strengthening L.A.'s workforce. The chamber and affiliate UNITE-LA serve over 30,000 students each year through financial aid workshops, job shadowing, internship programs and more. On the policy front, we study best practices in education, leading delegations of educators to see reforms at work in other cities, and we advocate for change at all levels of government. Just last week, we were successful in lobbying LAUSD to restructure two failing and two newly built L.A. high schools into small learning communities.
The chamber believes it is time for a formal community agreement, or "compact," in L.A. to define our education goals. We are committed to making this compact work. Modeled on an extraordinary initiative in Boston, this agreement will ensure a constructive debate that won't be driven by insiders, or by Sacramento or Washington, D.C. It will be driven by Angelenos, pledging to an action agenda that includes setting goals high, measuring those goals and holding all of us accountable.
Through this compact, we will ask and answer the key questions about LAUSD. Should it be broken into smaller, more manageable units? Should it be flattened, so there are three tiers of management, rather than the 10 or more that exist today? Can we achieve a dramatic turnaround without a total change in leadership and governance?
Ultimately, the compact will define goals that we all agree on. We may agree to design a new governance system that is centered around students, not the agendas of adults and their agents. We may agree that the adults responsible for educating must be held accountable and subject to consequences. We may agree to invest more in public education, once we have the confidence that our institutions will be results-driven, instead of today's compliance-driven bureaucracy.
Whatever the compact looks like, it will mark a new commitment to public education in L.A. The energy of those who come to L.A. pursuing the American Dream has powered our economy into one of the most diverse and creative in the world. Let's agree to work together and harness that energy and creativity to build the education system of our dreams.
*David Rattray is vice president of education and workforce development at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
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