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L.A. schools chief Cortines to lay out ambitious goals during budget crisis

February 16, 2010 |  6:00 am

In a “state of the district” speech, L.A. schools chief Ramon C. Cortines on Tuesday is expected to emphasize progress in making schools better amid a financial crisis that will make classroom conditions more difficult.

Cortines will outline four strategies for the Los Angeles Unified School District: using data on student performance to drive instruction; improving the training and quality of teachers; pushing financial decisions and dollars to individual schools, and creating a menu of schooling options along with accessible information about those schools for parents.

The Times learned details of Supt. Cortines' speech from interviews with Cortines and other district officials, as well as from notes prepared for his remarks.

The second point — improving the teacher corps — is tied closely to work being spearheaded by state school board President Ted Mitchell. Mitchell chairs a task force that is looking into how teachers are evaluated, hired and fired. In his remarks, Cortines will say that an important part of this effort is putting an increased emphasis on teacher recruitment, training and support.

The superintendent said he hopes to push dollars to school sites through a practice called “per-pupil” budgeting. Under it, money is allotted per student based on that student’s needs. Wherever that student enrolls, the money follows. Then the school decides how to spend that money.

This practice differs vastly from the current system, which allots funding for schools from the central office. The “per-pupil” method was rolled out in a pilot program this year. Next year, Cortines wants to take it districtwide.

The concept is not without challenges. To succeed, local schools must know how to spend their money wisely. And some schools could end up with more money while others have less. Some other school systems began per-pupil funding during a period when new dollars were flowing in — so that no schools would end up with less money than they had before.

Cortines won’t have that luxury, as L.A. Unified tries to solve a $640-million budget shortfall for next year. The district projects a second straight year of increased class sizes and employee layoffs. Funding for music and art will be halved — one proposal, rejected so far, involved cutting all music and art spending.

Cortines is giving the speech at Belmont High School, west of downtown, to emphasize that school’s recent academic progress.

Belmont High’s score on the state’s Academic Performance Index surged 78 points last year, one of the largest improvements in California. The school also slashed its still-alarming dropout rate from 55.4% to 38.9%.

But Belmont also exemplifies how far the district has to go. Its index score of 618 remains low; if every one of a school’s students tested as “proficient,” its score would be 875.

At Belmont, about one in five students tested as proficient in English and fewer than 1 in 10 tested as proficient in math.

-- Howard Blume

Photo: L.A. Times file