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L.A. Schools Chief Vows to Spend More on Books

September 13, 1997|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Acknowledging that students in the Los Angeles Unified School District lack the basic currency of education, Supt. Ruben Zacarias pledged Friday to increase funding of textbooks by $4.5 million--an increase of nearly 50% per student at the high school level.

That increase, along with $5.1 million more for library books and aides, would be carved from the most robust district budget in years. It comes in response to disclosures by The Times in July that the 660-school district suffers from severe textbook shortages, particularly in its high schools, because of low state funding and questionable local spending decisions.

Zacarias said he intends to put a textbook in every student's hands for every class. He described the additional money as a "running start" for schools, a sweetener on top of his edict last month that textbooks receive priority in the spending of all learning materials' funds. Currently, L.A. Unified students routinely share books in one or more classes and often have none to take home.

The new textbook money "is going to be mandated strictly for textbook purchases," he told 800 principals and other top education officials during a back-to-school speech at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday morning.

"I am a strong supporter of local decision-making, but on some matters there has to be clear direction and this is one of them, for two reasons: First, the state law clearly says that every child should have a textbook and, secondly, as a professional, I feel every child has a right to the required books."

Zacarias characterized replenishing book inventories as a means to help restore public confidence in the struggling district through improved student performance.

"I will not make or accept excuses for lack of improvement in student achievement," he said. "I will not use jargon that confuses rather than clarifies. I will not just do my job without learning what we expect from each other."

Board of Education President Julie Korenstein said she expected the board to approve Zacarias' proposal although she said details remain to be worked out.

However, critics pointed out that the proposal includes less for textbooks than for library books. They were also troubled that Zacarias on Friday proposed spending more for additional clerical support at schools--$18 million--than the textbook and library book increases combined.

"Am I missing something?" said board member David Tokofsky. "He's saying that it's more important to put people and books in the library than it is to put textbooks in the hands of students for each and every class."

The Times coverage of the book shortfall has pointed out that at the high school level, campuses spent about $22 per student on textbooks last year. That is 30% of the $72 per student available for "instructional materials," which includes everything from books to computer software to lab supplies.

In response to the story, Zacarias demanded a districtwide book audit. Preliminary results from year-round schools alone confirm that shortages are generally worst at high schools, where books are most expensive and loss is highest.

Thus Zacarias proposed proportionately more money for high schools--at a rate of $10 per student--than at middle schools ($5 per student) and elementary schools ($4 per student). Elementary schools in particular have received significant increases in book funding during the last two years as the emphasis on reading instruction has increased at the state level.

Overall, the extra $4.5 million represents an 18% increase in L.A. Unified textbook spending last year.

Although the money will not solve the problem at the most troubled schools, principals generally said it was a good start. At Fremont High, the campus profiled in the Times story, replenishing textbook supplies has been estimated at $420,000; Zacarias' new initiative would provide just $42,000.

School libraries have long been an embarrassment in L.A. Unified and for many of the same reasons that textbook supplies dwindled: declining state funding and a subsequent lack of local commitment.

State library funding is so low that the $2.7 million Zacarias wants to add this year for books is more than twice as much as the state has ever spent on library books in a single year throughout California schools. The other $2.6 million would provide library aides to 313 schools that now do without.

L.A. Unified library Supervisor Bonnie O'Brian traced a downhill slide from the late 1960s, school libraries' heyday, to the present. She estimated there are only three library books for every student--at least once the out-of-date tomes are weeded out.

"I cringe that some day [state Supt. of Public Instruction] Delaine Eastin is going to go to one of our libraries and pull off a book that starts, 'Some day man will go to the moon,' " O'Brian said at a hearing this week.

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