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Off With Our Heads! Schools Without Administrators

A funny thing is happening in the United States. Across the country, headless schools are opening. One opens this fall in Detroit: The teachers’ terms of employment are still governed by their union’s contract with Detroit Public Schools, but they will administer themselves on a democratic, cooperative basis.  In just the past couple of years, schools run by teacher cooperatives have opened in Madison, Denver, Chicago, Boston, and New York.  Milwaukee has 13 teacher-run schools.

These aren’t universities. They are elementary schools, kindergartens, high schools of the arts and humanities, high schools for budding scientists and programmers, high schools for social justice. Sometimes four or five co-operatively run and publicly-funded schools share the same building and grounds. Few of them operate in wealthy neighborhoods. Nearly all of them serve students who are struggling because English isn’t their first language, or because their homes and neighborhoods are scarred by poverty, neglect, substance abuse, and crime. They are generally successful by any measure, even the fatuous assessments of standardized testing. They are broadly popular with students, teachers, and parents.

Over the next few years, dozens–perhaps hundreds–of similar schools will open in Los Angeles: teachers will have control over curriculum, work rules, and every facet of academic policy. In every school, councils of students, teachers, and parents provide active, intellectual leadership.  Every school has a student-, community- and teacher-centered system of governance imagined from the ground up by faculty and citizen co-proposers. They will all have at least one principal administrator, so they have not amputated the head, only shrunken it.  Nonetheless it is clear that community leaders, students, and teachers will hire, evaluate, and severely circumscribe the authority of their (usually) solitary administrator in a self-conscious, explicitly distributed system of leadership.

The remarkable Los Angeles situation is a startling victory for grass-roots democracy in education. Less surprising is the fact that you haven’t heard about it. This victory has been ignored and misrepresented by the U.S. corporate media, many of whom also operate as for-profit education vendors. Leading national figures in both political parties, including the current Democratic administration, actively support the sectarian and profit-driven private management of public schooling.

One way to understand what’s happening in L.A. is as a crisis in teacher unionism, a subset of the near-collapse of unionism in the country after decades of hostile law created by politicians slavishly pursuing corporate interests. The immediate trigger for bold action by United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) was the determination by Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) that as many as 300 “poorly performing” schools would be opened to bid by charter or for-profit management over the next few years, with a first round of community “advisory votes” on bids scheduled for February 2010.

The district was already the site of more privately managed public schools than any other in the country; 300 more would essentially have broken the union. 

Desperate for a new strategy and inspired by the usually union-supported headless schools springing up elsewhere, this time the behemoth UTLA declined to square off against giant LAUSD in the traditional all-or-nothing pitched battle. 

Instead UTLA chose to throw its resources behind a series of grassroots actions, negotiating the right for teachers to submit their own bids. It sent money and personnel in active, energetic support of groups of teachers, parents and students, helping them to generate highly individual school visions.
Within weeks, in neighborhoods across the city, teachers and parents met to hammer out proposals–at least one for every school put out for bid, 36 in the first round. 

The results of the February 2010 “advisory votes” conducted by the League of Women Voters were stunning. In every school up for bid, the grassroots and teacher-led proposal won decisively, averaging 87 percent over all alternatives, including rich politician- and media-backed national education-management chains already established in the city such as Magnolia, Aspire, and Green Dot.

“Advisory” or not, the parents’ vote was so overwhelming that it produced tangible political fear of electoral backlash, leaving the schools supervisor and district board little choice but to award the majority of the bids to proposals featuring workplace and community democracy. Of the 36 schools up for grabs, four were awarded to the Los Angeles mayor’s nonprofit management corporation, three to private charters and management corporations; 29 went to teacher-parent proposals. 

If the grass roots win the same percentage of all those offered to bid in the district over the next few years, 240 democratically-operated schools will open. There would be 60 operated by politically connected nonprofits or profit-seeking corporations, though all of them would do so against the wishes of local parents.  

Part 1 of an essay for the National Day of Action to Defend Public Education, October 7, 2010. Originally composed as the introduction to the forthcoming Occupation Cookbook.  Read Part 2

x-posted: howtheuniversityworks.com

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