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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON SCHOOLS

If You've Seen Slums, You Know a Lot About Our Schools

Hold the state, starting with Gov. Davis, accountable for the schools' appalling conditions.

May 19, 2000|GARY BLASI | Gary Blasi is a professor at UCLA's School of Law

When I began working in January with a group of law students to investigate conditions in California public schools, I did not expect to have any relevant expertise. Other than being the father of two kids who went through the public schools, I never have been much involved in education issues. Yet it turned out that I did have some relevant expertise: I know a lot about slums and what allows them to exist.

What we learned about our schools was profoundly disturbing. Across California, from Los Angeles to Fresno to rural areas of Northern California. Thousands of California children go to schools with conditions for which we really only have one word: slums.

Over the past five months, our team collected information from hundreds of people, including nearly 100 school nurses from across the state. In many schools, we found conditions I am familiar with from having worked on slum housing issues for 30 years: schools with no heating, inadequate ventilation, infestations of cockroaches and other vermin, moldy walls and backed up and overflowing toilets. And, again, these conditions were not just in poor inner-city neighborhoods but in public schools across California.

And our findings didn't stop there. We also talked to students in classes with no textbooks, or textbooks so old they still talk about an intact Soviet Union. We met students who had almost never encounter a teacher who had even one hour of instruction in how to be a teacher. I expected that we might find these conditions in a few well-publicized dysfunctional school districts. But these conditions are not confined to a handful of schools run by incompetent bureaucrats. Students face these conditions across the state.

Why is this? There is a lot of talk now about accountability in education. In January, the governor spoke about "California's drive to demand more of students and teachers and hold students accountable." I think that is an excellent idea. But who is accountable to our students? Our team of soon-to-be lawyers and I also researched this question.

The state has established and works through local school districts, but that is a political and legislative choice, not a constitutional mandate. Under general state constitutional law, the buck stops with the governor, the superintendent of public instruction and other state officials.

But in the daily reality of our schools, there is another answer to the question of who is accountable to our students: No one. The patchwork of laws and regulations that govern conditions in public schools is made up mainly of holes. For example, the state has regulations requiring that students have access to a textbook that they can take home for study, but these rules apply only to schools for barbers and cosmetologists. The state has regulations requiring some schools to be "appropriately cooled and heated to overcome normal summer and winter outside temperatures." Unfortunately, these regulations pertain only to traffic schools. Public school students lack some of the same protections from slum conditions that tenants have had since 1919.

Where there are standards for schools, no one ever bothers to find out whether they are routinely violated. We regularly inspect workplaces, restaurants and apartment houses. No one inspects our public schools. In 1989, the Legislature empowered local building departments to inspect schools for violations of slum-housing standards. Reports of these inspections were to be sent to the state architect, who has yet to receive a single such inspection report. The reason is that the state gave local building officials the right to inspect, but neither the duty to do so nor any money to hire more inspectors. So local officials do not inspect schools. No one does.

Even when journalists or others have brought substandard school conditions to public attention, the state has done nothing to enforce the few vague standards that exist. The state monitors local school districts extremely closely about some things, especially accounting for state money. But only in the case of fiscal mismanagement or outright corruption, as was alleged against the Compton district, does the state intervene. The state never steps in to protect students from appalling conditions of the kind we found--even when it knows about them.

Without a system of accountability, the abysmal conditions in many of our schools can only grow worse. With no standards, no inspections and no enforcement, there is no reason to expect that the situation will improve.

Accountability is not the only issue, of course. The conditions in our schools also reflect the consequences of two decades of under-funding and deferred maintenance, which we are just beginning to address with local and state bond measures. But our public education system needs more than money. We desperately need accountability starting at the top.

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