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Shaking Up the L.A. School District : It Should Be Split Into Smaller Units of Racial and Ethnic Mix

December 02, 1985|JOHN HUERTA | John Huerta, a partner in a Pasadena law firm, was associate counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund when the organization filed a civil-rights complaint with the Justice Department concerning inequities in the Los Angeles Unified School District

Twenty years ago the McCone Commission Report on the Watts riots noted the disparity between the education resources available to schools attended mainly by Anglo students and schools that were predominantly black and Latino.

The commission found that minority schools had less-experienced teachers, were seriously overcrowded and run down, offered fewer curriculum choices and were lacking in other crucial areas. These in equalities were reflected in high dropout rates and low achievement scores of blacks and Latinos. Little has changed.

The post-Watts riots aid to education and the Crawford school desegregation case somewhat redressed the balance of power for blacks. A limited amount of two-way busing occurred, and resources were made available to racially isolated minority schools. But few Latinos were bused as a result of the Crawford case. Latinos, as do many other parents, have deep-rooted feelings against sending their children away from neighborhood schools.

While the school desegregation battle raged in the courts, the district's demographics changed drastically. Latino enrollment increased from 20% to more than 50%. Because of their higher birth and immigration rates, Latinos will represent 66% of the district's enrollment within the next 10 years. The percentage of Anglo students has dropped from 66% to 20%, and continues to decrease. Black enrollment has also dropped significantly, from 25% to 20%, and is expected to be at 18% within a few years. This is because of a steep decline in black birthrates, coupled with the increasing numbers of black middle-class families that are moving to the suburbs. The fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, Asian-Americans, has increased to 8% of district enrollment.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is the nation's second largest and the fastest growing--an increase of 70,000 students is expected by 1990. From the 1940s through the 1960s the district was primarily Anglo, and new schools were built to accommodate the postwar baby boom. But during the desegregation battle the trial judge ruled that no new schools could be built that would be segregated. The school board interpreted that ruling as prohibiting any new school construction. As a result, no new schools have been built for the last 20 years.

The difference in class sizes, per-pupil expenditures and general quality of education between the underutilized and the overcrowded schools is shocking. There are more than 60 grammar schools--each with fewer than 400 students--classified as underutilized, while some overcrowded schools have close to 2,000. Anglo parents have fought to keep their low-enrollment schools open. The board agreed, even though it was not cost-effective.

Despite its many problems, the district, from a Latino perspective, is making some progress. Under the leadership of Larry Gonzales, a coalition of liberal school board members has successfully fought to close approximately 24 of the smallest under-enrolled schools.

Many of the underutilized schools have accepted black and Latino children under the voluntary desegregation program, since the extra students help keep such schools open. However, the school board is careful to limit the number of minority students so that those schools retain their predominantly Anglo character.

The board argues that if the percentage of Anglo students in these schools dips below 40%, it will cause "white flight." The result is that Latino children from overcrowded schools are bused past nearby Anglo schools with empty classrooms to outlying areas far from their communities.

To relieve overcrowding the district first should abolish the 60/40 rule that limits the number of minority students at an under-utilized school. In a district in which Anglos are less than 20% of the total student population, the 60/40 rule is completely indefensible as a matter of common sense, moral principle and basic fairness.

The board should close as many of the low-enrollment schools as possible and put that money into high-priority programs. Standard sizes for elementary, junior high and senior high schools should be adopted, and equality in education established as a goal for every student.

The board also must build more schools to house the growing numbers of students. All children will have to participate in year-round schools. The board must plan now so that the transition will be as smooth as possible.

The school board must face some fundamental problems inherent in the district because of its size, structure and the gigantic bureaucracy required to meet the needs of such a diverse student population. All district lines in Los Angeles County should be redrawn, breaking it up into several smaller districts with as rich a racial and ethnic mix as possible.

Real magnet schools, of the caliber of New York's Bronx High School of Science and the High School of Performing Arts, should be created so that they would attract students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The political problems in carrying out this scheme are enormous. Do our politicians have the courage to attempt it?

Another major problem is the lack of money. California spends slightly below the U.S. average on education. We used to lead the nation in per-pupil expenditures when our schools were mainly Anglo. It was considered an investment in the future. That investment paid off for California during the 1960s and 1970s. What about the year 2000?

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