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Public Schools Aren't So Public

September 09, 2000|KATHARINE DeBURGH | Katharine DeBurgh, of Granada Hills, is pursuing a teaching career

After spending 13 years as a student in L.A.'s public schools, then graduating to spend four more at a UC, I thought I knew a lot about public education. But this summer, during the LAUSD's three-week orientation for new teachers that I attended as a district intern, I made a shocking discovery: Public schools are not as public as you might think. I went into orientation believing public school to be government-mandated, government-funded and government-provided. Only that first belief remains intact.

While state funds provide the vast majority of any public school's operating budget, most schools thrive on private donations as well. North Hollywood High's literary magazine, for example, is published by an annual grant from Texaco. Smaller local businesses often adopt elementary and middle schools, sponsoring anything from field trips to science fairs.

The most surprising sources of donations are the underpaid public schoolteachers themselves. First-year teachers often invest thousands of dollars in their classrooms.

No matter how the Legislature juggles budgets, state funds seem only to manage the bare essentials of reading, writing and arithmetic. A more dynamic education requires money from other sources.

The most amazing revelation was how little instruction in the classroom is actually government-provided. One controversy surrounding Proposition 38 vouchers--which would give $4,000 per year in state money to parents for every child sent to private school--is the idea of giving the public's money to private teachers who have their own agendas. But when district programs could not raise Stanford 9 test scores, the Los Angeles Unified School District itself turned to the market. It gave its lowest-scoring schools three options to teach kids how to read: Open Court Reading, Success for All, or Reading Mastery. Each of these is a program developed and marketed by the private sector. By far the most popular, so popular that some teachers wish the whole district would adopt it, is Open Court.

Open Court is an extensive curriculum in literacy, often incorporating lessons in social studies, science and other areas of study. Open Court lessons are scripted for the teacher to follow. Often, a teacher will not have to make a lesson plan for a third of the school day, because Open Court has already done so. A government-salaried teacher, in these cases, is nothing but the face presenting a lesson that is actually taught by a private corporation.

While Open Court is the most extensive program adopted by schools in the LAUSD, there are many other subjects taught by proxy. Math programs provide teachers with everything from counting blocks to textbooks--for a fee, of course.

Government-run schools, then, both receive from and provide profits for the corporate world. While the LAUSD is far from complete privatization, public schools depend on the private sector to supplement and provide instruction. Many companies have already discovered the great profits to be made off a failing public school system willing to pay for improved test scores. Publishers know that the books that sell include detailed lesson plans for teachers.

While teachers do the actual work with kids everyday, more and more, other individuals plan their lessons to sell on the open market. Meanwhile, the LAUSD reports significant gains in Stanford 9 scores, especially in the lower grades where Open Court is used.

If Proposition 38 passes, public funds will flow even more easily into private coffers. While this idea may be offensive to some, it is merely an extension of a relationship that already exists. The LAUSD's orientation relied on a profit-based company to teach me to teach kids how to read. The public and private in education are irrevocably intertwined to their great mutual benefit.

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