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A 'borderless' school district with lots of choices: LA's superintendent outlines priorities

Michelle King, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, speaks during a town hall meeting at Gage Middle School in Huntington Park.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
Michelle King, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, speaks during a town hall meeting at Gage Middle School in Huntington Park on May 11, 2016.

In a decade, if Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michelle King has her way, she would run a “borderless district” where students can choose any school in the city they wish to attend.

In the nearer term, King said Wednesday, she wants L.A. Unified to focus on offering an expanded portfolio of school choices, from magnet programs to dual language immersion schools — and yes, charter schools must also play a role, King reiterated.

King has kept a low profile during her first five months on the job, doing as much listening as agenda-setting in her public appearances.

While still light on specific policy details, the list of priorities King shared at a town hall for parents at Gage Middle School in Huntington Park on Wednesday reflects broadly how the new superintendent hopes to make her mark on the district. 

Among the priorities she listed Wednesday:

  • Decentralization. "We can't run it all," King said, "from where I sit at Beaudry [the district headquarters] … Shifting the power, the control, the resources, down to the school level." The idea is not necessarily new; King's predecessor, Ramón Cortines, proposed a similar idea during his first stint as superintendent in 2000. This year, King said individual principals received a little more discretion about how to spend some of their funding. "You'll start to see that happening more and more," she said.
  • School choices. King said parents want to have the option to send their kids to "theme-based magnet" schools, as well as other options, like dual immersion, pilot programs and even single-gender schools. This has become a priority for L.A. school board members, who've urged King to develop a strategy to expand these programs. In the long term, she said she envisioned the weakening of neighborhood-based school boundary lines so students could "go wherever they want across this expansive district because there's a program or an area they're interested in." (L.A. Unified officials are in the very early stages of developing a unified enrollment system for the district's far-flung school choices that could, in theory, help achieve this end.)
  • Rebuilding the public trust' and community engagement. "The district and public education in general over the course of years has not received the best reputation," King said. "We have got to turn that around." King said listening tours would be critical throughout her tenure.

King also listed fiscal stability, high school graduation rates, college readiness, equitable funding for high-needs schools, expansion of arts offerings and creating new career and technical education programs as priorities.
The superintendent also repeated a call to heal what she termed a "broken relationship" between charter schools and traditional district campuses.

"We're building a portfolio of schools, of options for parents and kids," King said — and, she added, "when I talk about different types of instructional pathways, charters are another model."

She noted the district had sent out "save-the-dates" for a June summit where charter school leaders and traditional public school educators could open a more fruitful, less combative dialogue.