Sacramento is about to send the Los Angeles Unified School District a bone-rattling message. Gov. Pete Wilson is expected to sign two important bills. One, by a Republican, would make it easier for voters to approve breakup of the mammoth Los Angeles district. The other, by a Democrat, sets new safeguards related to creation of additional districts. The school board, of course, plans to go to court to challenge the legislation, but if that is all that is planned, the district is signing its own death warrant.
The board must quickly address the fundamental problems driving the sentiment for breakup. Parents are frustrated by low test scores, a high dropout rate and unconscionable levels of violence on campuses. They are demanding quality education in a safe environment but they see nothing but a worsening situation in which their children come out losers. Although there is no guarantee that smaller would be better, in their desperation they feel that anything would be better than the status quo.
The challenges confronting the LAUSD are truly daunting. Teachers are expected to educate 640,000 students, including an increasing number who come from dysfunctional homes and immigrant children who don't speak English.
Economically, the district is increasingly expected to do more with less. Deep budget cuts, traceable to Proposition 13 and more recent fiscal woes in Sacramento, shortchange both students and teachers. One of the most visible signs of the fiscal trouble is a decline in maintenance that has created disgusting conditions at some facilities.
And money isn't the only problem. Powerful labor unions, despite some demonstrations of flexibility, still wield excessive influence inside and outside the classroom, to the detriment of the schools. Clearly, administrators of the school district are not the only parties who bear responsibility.
The LAUSD inarguably has major problems, but would a breakup fix them? Would small districts really improve education and parental involvement in the schools? These are now questions of vital and pressing concern because of the two bills that have been passed.
AB 107, sponsored by Assemblywoman Paula L. Boland (R-Granada Hills), makes it easier for voters to decide whether they want smaller districts.
The related bill, SB 699, sponsored by Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), requires new districts to ensure that they would not be racially and ethnically segregated. Hayden's measure also requires socioeconomic diversity, continued instruction for disabled students and preservation of magnet schools, charter schools and the LEARN approach, as well as maintenance of existing union agreements until the expiration of contracts.
Although thousands of teachers and other employees enjoy seniority that allows them to choose where they work, the Hayden bill prohibits unacceptable numbers of skilled instructors from fleeing the poorest schools. However, an important question remains: How would the new assignments be made? A lot of lawyers and consultants could expect to get rich.
The bipartisan cooperation between Boland and Hayden indicates the evolution of a goal. Racial integration is no longer the sole factor in the debate as it was 25 years ago. With a raft of news stories telling of high school graduates who have no grasp of elementary reading, writing and math, public K-12 education stands indicted. And parents and educators of every color are rightly alarmed.
District administrators and the unions only hurt themselves when they give a mere legalistic response--"We'll sue"--to the threat of breakup. Parents are pining for a deeper response that addresses their gut-level worries. Increasingly, voters need to be given affirmative reasons why they shouldn't dismantle the district. A threat of tying it all up in court is hardly the inspiration or the reassurance that Los Angeles parents want and deserve.
The days may be growing short. Hello, LAUSD. Hello, school board. Hello, United Teachers-Los Angeles. Is anybody listening?