Two apparently unrelated events that could have significant impact on the education of children in Los Angeles occurred within one week of each other. The first was the news that all Los Angeles Unified School District high schools may have to convert to year-round enrollments due to increasing student populations. The other event was the state Senate Education Committee approval of SB 1504, a bill authored by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), which would provide funding for increasing the number of Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high schools.
One of the little-known facts about year-round schools is the way in which they administer academic enrichment courses. Advanced placement courses give students the opportunity to improve their grade point averages and their chances for college admission. However, there is great disparity in AP offerings throughout the state. More than 100 high schools offer no AP courses at all. In addition, studies by both the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute and the Public Policy Institute of California show that high minority enrollment schools offer fewer AP courses.
This disparity in access has received a great deal of attention due to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the state of California for not providing equal access to AP courses. Action this year becomes even more imperative because of LAUSD's proposed switch to year-round schools. A transition to year-round enrollment would create even more obstacles for equal access to AP courses. Consider the following: On average, a student in a traditional two-semester LAUSD school has 10 AP courses available during the academic year. A student in a year-round school, with three different tracks, has access to fewer course offerings because the 10 courses must be divided between the three tracks. If a school has only one teacher qualified to teach AP physics, and it is offered in Track A, students in Tracks B and C do not have access to this course. Some year-round schools cluster their AP courses in a way that prevents access to students in one particular track.
In addition, to get full benefit from the AP course, a student should take the AP exams, which traditionally are offered in May. If a student's semester does not conclude until July, that student cannot take the exam.
A straightforward solution would be to increase the resources available for this program. With recent amendments to include multitrack high schools, that is what the Escutia bill proposes to do: Provide additional resources for teacher training, and financial assistance to students in low-income schools so that they have equal chances of taking the AP courses available to their more affluent counterparts.
Yet there is resistance to even this modest step to equalize the educational playing field. The legislative analyst's office recommends deferring action on the legislation, and there are indications that the support of some in the governor's office has grown lukewarm.
Resistance needs to be replaced with vision. Possible amendments to SB 1504 should be considered. For example: Ensure that every high school in California offers a rigorous curriculum of at least six AP courses, including four in the core subjects of math, English, science and social studies. This would allow all qualified students to enroll in AP classes, as well as compete for the governor's merit scholarships in math and science. Also, provide infrastructure and planning capability to schools that lack the foundation to offer a strong and successful AP program. And fund technical assistance to create programs to prepare middle school students for the challenges of a rigorous curriculum in high school.
Gov. Gray Davis, in his State of the State address, said, "We should be determined to do everything within our means to recapture California's rightful place at the head of the class, and promote high achievement for all California students." AP course availability is just the tip of the iceberg of institutional inequalities in California high schools. The first step toward fixing the problem would be to begin with programs that have proved their worth.