Public school reform is usually based on simple arithmetic--spend more money.
But radical reformers seem to prefer geology. Call theirs the earthquake solution: Knock down public schools and start from scratch.
Once a far-fetched notion, the idea now is believed to have some merit. The need for dramatic improvement of the region's public education system has never been more crucial.
Urban schools in the Los Angeles area have lost their traditional base of middle-class families--mothers and fathers who maintained high expectations of their children and teachers. In their place, families of working poor and a dwindling middle-class must endure campus violence, language barriers, racial tensions, high drop-out rates and low student achievement.
As problems mount, so does the exodus of families who can afford to move, leaving behind a less demanding, less sophisticated and politically weak constituency.
At the same time, the recession has resulted in teacher layoffs, salary cuts and fewer dollars for books and equipment at schools across the state.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, once a model for public education, has become an example of a different sort, its schools increasingly dangerous with campus shootings and fights. Its students rank among the lowest in scholastic achievement nationally, with 40% dropping out before graduation.
In addition, about 44% of the district's 640,000 students come to school speaking little or no English, even though most were born in the United States. That contradiction is largely the result of immigration. Tens of thousands of parents arrived from mostly Latin American countries over the last 15 years, and they continue to speak Spanish at home and in their neighborhoods.
To compound its growing troubles, Los Angeles Unified had to make $1.2 billion in spending cuts over four years before arriving at this year's $3.9-billion budget. These reductions came as the district's minority enrollment reached 87%, with more than 80 languages spoken by students.
The low academic achievement of many area students contrasts sharply with Southern California's reputation as a center for the country's brightest minds and most talented hands.
This growing disparity between the demands of a 21st Century economy and the dwindling abilities of its future workers is not just a problem for schools. Everybody stands to lose unless schools can produce well-prepared workers and responsible citizens.
A large mismatch between skills needed for good jobs and the skills of students sets the stage for a Third World economy, where affluence abuts squalor.
Southern California may well reign as the new century's world center for international trade, finance, manufacturing and entertainment. But the region's growing education and income gap can at the same time yield a region wracked by social unrest.
Even now, a Southern California economic recovery will mean plenty of jobs, but the undereducated will "find them at the Kmart clerk level," said Daniel Mitchell, an economist in UCLA's graduate school of management.
In the face of overwhelming odds, area educators have been trying to find solutions.
Pasadena High School, for example, sought to have all its students, even those bound for college, prepared to hold a job upon graduation. Using public and private money, several districts jointly opened a math and science academy on the Cal State Dominguez Hills campus.
An inner-city housing developer provides study rooms with computers and textbooks in his South Los Angeles buildings, and tenants' children get free one-on-one tutoring.
Last year, educators and community and business leaders embarked on an ambitious plan to overhaul the lumbering city school district.
But the efforts of the so-called LEARN reforms (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now) have been criticized for their slow pace. Though promising, the changes may take a generation and must battle long-standing resistance.
Despite agreement over the need to improve public education, it is an issue that has historically been divided among reform groups that cannot agree on how to do the job.
Teachers in Los Angeles Unified staged a nine-day strike in 1989 over pay and school reforms that gave greater decision-making powers to schools. Since then, most of the pay hikes have been rescinded, and the union reform plan has been scrapped.
The school district in the 1980s created a sweeping bilingual teaching program that promised to teach students in their native languages while they were learning English. The underfunded program has yet to show strong results.
Conservative reformers of California's education system last year sought to improve schools by forcing competition. They wanted to give parents the power to send their children to any school--public or private--that would accept them, using tax dollars. Although voters rejected the plan, the proposal scared educators.
Since then, there has been more talk of reform, but little has been done.
Unfortunately, education's most serious problems--increasingly confounding diversity, growing poverty, crowded classrooms, low achievement and a youth culture steeped in drugs, gangs and guns--easily survived the quake.
"All of those have crossed the earthquake divide intact; they are still central features to the education scene in L.A.," said Theodore Mitchell, dean of the Graduate School of Education at UCLA and a LEARN proponent.
Now, Mitchell said, the earthquake's losses have also created an opportunity to rethink how schools should work.
"Now that we have had it decided for us that we can't go back to the status quo, let's try some new things."