The Caustic Reformer 

Randolph Ward has proposed the boldest school reforms in America. But can Oakland's most hated man sell his vision?

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Ouchi has been a fan of the Edmonton model for more than a decade. In the mid-1990s, he teamed up with former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to convince that city's school district to adopt schools-based budgeting. Although they were rebuffed by a reluctant school board and teachers' union, Riordan continues to embrace the Edmonton model in his current job as California's secretary of education under Schwarzenegger. Riordan was so impressed by Edmonton that he began talking about remaking California schools in their image and hired Strembitsky as a consultant after taking office. Those ideas have since taken a back seat to other issues on Schwarzenegger's agenda, but in a recent interview, Riordan called Ward "one of my superheroes" for adopting key aspects of the Edmonton model. Riordan said the governor also is keeping tabs on "what's going on in Oakland."

Even before Ward's arrival, Scott-George had been examining similar reforms. But her boss, Chaconas, was convinced that the local educational community would never embrace the radical changes of Edmonton without proof of success. So the reforms moved slowly, particularly once he became preoccupied by the fiscal meltdown of the district. "Dennis was about creating hope," said Scott-George, who is now a special assistant to Ward.

Chaconas' strategy had been to open new small elementary schools while dividing the city's large high schools into smaller learning environments. Research shows that small schools boost student attendance -- an important element in a city where enrollment, and thus revenue, has declined rapidly. And like the Edmonton reforms, the small-schools initiative was decentralized. Each principal had more authority than the traditional Oakland principal.

Shortly after Ward arrived in Oakland, he decided both to open more small schools and to quietly embrace the Edmonton model. The first step was school-based budgeting, although Ward called it results-based budgeting. Throughout the 2003-04 school year, Scott-George hammered out the details, and then in late 2004, Broad and Gates donated $1.3 million in seed money to help her and a design team create a new blueprint for Oakland schools.

Yet simply copying Edmonton was not enough. Although the design team, which included the small school backers at the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, believed that giving principals control over their budgets would instill pride of ownership, they also worried that Edmonton's model would not adequately address the funding gap between rich and poor schools. So they went one step further.

Principals in Edmonton don't really control teacher salaries -- the costliest item in any budget. Instead, each budget is based upon the average teacher salary for the entire school district. That way, when a principal is choosing which teacher to hire, salary plays no role in the decision. "We don't want price to dictate these decisions," Superintendent McBeath explained.

Edmonton teachers' union chief Karen Beaton said that her union never would have supported school-based budgeting if principals had to base hiring decisions upon whether their school had enough money to pay a particular instructor. "If a school needs a teacher, they should be able to pick the best person for that school," said Beaton, who has worked as both a teacher and a principal. "Otherwise, decisions would be made without the best interests of the students at heart." It's not that financial matters aren't considered, but rather that managing teacher salaries remains a central-office responsibility in Edmonton.

But Scott-George and her colleagues concluded that Edmonton's system wouldn't lessen Oakland's funding gap between rich and poor schools. "You would never achieve equity doing it that way," explained Ben-Gal, who now runs the district's budgeting program. So Oakland Unified's new system, which Ward rolled out at the beginning of the 2004-05 school year, goes beyond the Edmonton model.

Under Oakland's old system -- the one still employed by every other school district in California -- salaries had nothing to do with where teachers worked. For example, if two Oakland schools each had 400 students, both schools would have been allotted, say, twenty teachers. All twenty could be well-paid veterans or low-paid rookies; the old system didn't care. The result was that veteran teachers tended to flock to the hills after paying their dues in the flatlands, where teaching is more difficult. Flatlands schools then tended to be left with higher turnover and a seemingly endless string of new instructors, who were asked to do the tougher job of working with kids in poverty.

Under Ward's new plan, schools that educate the same number of students will receive the same amount of discretionary funds to spend. Consequently, the veteran staffs of hillside schools will have to be broken up and replaced with a mix of veterans and rookies -- unless well-heeled hillside parents are willing to donate more money to help those schools keep their veterans.


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