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Schools vie for aid, but may get lemons

The state has a jackpot of nearly $3billion to spend, but in L.A. and elsewhere, many needy campuses will get nothing.

March 18, 2007|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

Santee High in South Los Angeles ranks at the very bottom of high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, but it won't get a penny of the most substantial infusion of new state funding in years for low-achieving schools.

Nearby Belmont High, another struggling school to be sure, almost certainly will get these funds -- some $1,000 per student for seven years.

So it goes with the big-stakes, lottery-like Quality Education Investment Act, the result of a $2.9-billion litigation settlement between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Teachers Assn. and state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. Because the goal was to provide enough money to have a significant effect, the funds will be narrowly targeted, going only to about one-third of the 1,455 California schools that rank in the lowest 20% in student achievement. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which dwarfs other school systems, is expected to receive funding for about 80 schools.

How many local schools will receive money -- and which ones -- is up to the state, although most slots will be filled by a lottery. L.A. Unified, for its part, is responsible for listing its schools in order of priority and making sure applications are accurate. The school board is scheduled to vote on that list Thursday, with the state announcing the final picks in early May. The money starts flowing in the next school year, which for year-round campuses begins in July.

The priority ranking of schools has been the subject of debate. And so have the requirements: The district will need to hire many more experienced teachers, for example, and classroom space is an issue.

Unavoidably, there will be losers.

As for the winners, they will enjoy relative plenty for seven years. They will have that time to prove that a major influx of resources works, that class-size reduction, intense teacher training and adding counselors -- three mandated features of the program -- will raise student achievement. These campuses could embody the argument that other low-performing schools need a lot more money, too.

But if these richer times are squandered, then these schools could become evidence that money is not the issue, weakening the case for substantially greater education funding that a small army of researchers made in high-profile reports released last week.

Decades-long federally funded efforts have yielded unpersuasive results, as have state-funded initiatives of recent years, critics say.

L.A. Unified school board member David Tokofsky called the infusion "the most significant investment in public education" since President Johnson made federal aid to schools part of his war on poverty.

For the winners, that is.

"This is not permanent money, and this is not a very well thought-out program, but it is being driven by all of our feelings that we can wait no longer," said Tokofsky, who chaired last week's special school board meeting on the subject. "That the kids most in need -- the students at Locke, Jordan and Garfield, schools overburdened by the number of kids and the intensity of poverty -- can wait no longer."

This attempt also is a bet on particular strategies, especially class-size reduction, and a wager that failing schools and the state education system are ready to succeed where they haven't before. Doubters abound.

"Pouring more money into failing schools doesn't work," said Caprice Young, head of the California Charter Schools Assn., offering one critique. "If you've got money to improve the quality of education in a neighborhood, the best thing you can do is start a new school." She, of course, favors publicly funded, independently run charter schools.

Santee High, a traditional school, suffers precisely for its newness. Eligibility is first determined by 2005 test scores. Santee didn't open until July 2005 -- after that year's testing.

Jefferson High and Jordan High, also in South L.A., follow Santee as the next lowest academic performers. They would appear to be certain winners, but both schools lack space to reduce class sizes in core academic subjects to 25 students or less.

But such schools are not automatically out of the game. The rules set aside 15% of the program's total student enrollment for schools that would have to submit alternative plans, such as putting more than one teacher in a classroom. These alternative strategies, say state officials, must be supported by research. And they must be in state hands by month's end.

In recent months, community groups have entered the debate, descending on district headquarters for demonstrations or meetings three times last week. At some schools, they've found principals who either knew little about the program or showed a lack of interest, said parent Martha Sanchez of the grass-roots group Los Angeles ACORN.

District officials insist that all schools will be required to submit applications and that schools applying under the alternative program will get the help they need to submit top-notch proposals.

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