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Superintendent Interview

Trial by Fire: "Renorming" the LAUSD

Ramon “Ray” Cortines is either the luckiest or the unluckiest man in education. The feisty superintendent was a top official in the Clinton administration’s education department. He was chancellor of the New York City school system when it was still independent of City Hall. Now, during an era of nontraditional superintendents and mayoral control, this career educator works with an elected school board to run the Los Angeles Unified School District—one of the largest, most troubled school districts in the country.

But Cortines is far from behind the times. He’s just pushed through one of the most radical experiments in American education: outsourcing up to 250 schools to outside groups, including charter organizations. Now if he can only get his hands on some of that Race to the Top money.

Q It’s been a few months since the federal stimulus legislation was enacted—is
it working in Los Angeles?

A Absolutely, yes. I used those dollars, and it did save jobs here. Not as many as some hoped, but we couldn’t spend it all in the first year.

Q What about the jobs that were lost? Was there any fat to cut, or was it all muscle and bone?
A The district was bloated. Every time a new program came down the pike, we appointed a new person to run it. There were 5,000 teachers that were working out of the classroom. We’re “right-sizing” the district.

Q How did you decide which jobs to keep and which to close out at the school level?
A We took a fresh look and “renormed” everything. We had some schools that had seven or even eight assistant principals.

Q What’s the difference between working for an elected school board instead of being under mayoral control?
A One is not better than the other. People want me to be on the side of getting rid of school boards. I’ve always been of the mind to make it work, whatever you’ve got.

Q Some superintendents are pushing back against the Race to the Top initiative. They feel that it is prescriptive and heavy-handed. What’s your position?

A I’m supporting it. I wrote a letter to Arne Duncan proposing that districts like ours be able to make a direct application. We’re bigger than most states. I haven’t gotten a response yet.

Q Some people say that your plan to allow as many as 250 district schools to be run by outside organizations represents “giving away” the district. How do you respond?
A I didn’t give away anything. It’s going to be a very competitive process, open to teachers and administrators inside the schools as well as outside groups. I’ve never been known to ever give things away.

Q How will the process work?
A You’re going to have to jump through a lot of hoops to get a school. There will be two committees evaluating every application. Neither schools nor service providers will be identified, in order to avoid bias. The application will go first through one committee, then to the local school, and then to the other committee. I make a recommendation, then the board votes on it.

Q Are there any big lessons to be learned from the much-watched effort by Green Dot to fix Locke High School?
A. I don’t think so. I think that it is a safer, calmer, better-managed school, which it was not before. But I get a little tired of all the rhetoric and the promises. We all have problems. Let’s come together and look at best practices rather than saying “my program is better than yours.”

Q Aren’t the charter organizations realizing that they have to address the same challenges as districts if they want credibility?
A I don’t see anyone from the outside groups standing in line salivating for our older schools or schools that are struggling. They just want the new shiny toys under the Christmas tree. It’s not going to be easy.   

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