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Rolling On Under Pressure

April 04, 2002

The bus drivers strike hammering the Los Angeles Unified School District this week might have been another staggering blow to parental morale and students' waning hope for the excellent education to which they should be entitled. But even the staunchest critics of the LAUSD--and yes, that includes this editorial page--have to admit that Supt. Roy Romer and his crew are handling this potentially debilitating crisis rather gracefully.

District officials say that by 8:30 Wednesday morning, on the second day of the strike by 700 employees of the private Laidlaw company, substitute drivers had picked up 80% of the bused students. Moreover, officials actually have a strategy, giving priority to the 18,000 special ed students and to children who attend classes on a year-round calendar and are scheduled this week to take the Stanford 9 standardized test required by the state. First they're picking up kids in neighborhoods where waiting for the bus can be dangerous and then they pick up the other students.

The district should certainly encourage Laidlaw to work toward a quick solution with the strikers, who make far less and have fewer benefits than LAUSD drivers--many of whom started out with private companies. Indeed, few school districts depend as much on busing as the LAUSD. Every school day, 2,200 buses crisscross the sprawling district, picking up children in Pico-Union, the Mid-Wilshire district, Koreatown and other densely populated areas and dropping them off in the San Fernando Valley, Pacific Palisades and the Westside. It adds up to 75,000 students rattling along in traffic.

Of course, parents would be more impressed if the district were as efficient at raising math and reading scores as it was at transportation. And while most of the students who spend time in those iconic yellow vehicles are riding voluntarily--31,000 go to far-flung magnet schools, for instance--15,000 are shoved onto buses to get them off campuses that are overcrowded because the district has failed in its school-building responsibilities.

So, in some ways the sign-waving bus drivers spotlight the district's many shortcomings. (Studies have documented the toll suffered by bused students, who as a rule do not do as well as their peers who walk to school.) But so far, the district's handling of the strike bodes well for how it might take on its myriad other crises.

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