The introduction of two bills in the state Legislature has renewed the debate over whether the Los Angeles Unified School District should be broken up.
Support for the bills to ease the breakup process will be particularly strong in the Valley, where residents have long felt disenfranchised and insulted by Downtown interests. Once again we will have to hear school board members Jackie Goldberg talking about “rich Valley schools” (without air conditioning?) and Rita Walters shuddering at “segregation” in an area that is 73% minority.
In response to past breakup movements, the district claims to have re-created itself, through the elimination of administrative “regions” and their replacement with “clusters,” and through selected LEARN schools. Both the clusters and LEARN schools are supposed to bring new school and community autonomy that make breakup unnecessary. The question then becomes: Is that promised autonomy a reality?
I would like to describe two areas in which neither the clusters nor LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Reform Now) has provided any new autonomy: curriculum, particularly bilingual education, and management.
A little background on bilingual education: Since the end of state-mandated bilingual education in 1987, districts in California have been free to create their own responses to the problem of educating children with limited English proficiency. Los Angeles has chosen to remove them from English instruction and put them in native-language instruction until they pass a proficiency test in that language. In practice this usually involves Spanish speakers, because of their numbers. Tagalog speakers, for instance, get no bilingual services whatsoever.
The State Board of Education, under the influence of lobbies with millions of dollars in vested interests, has promoted the LAUSD’s approach. How has it worked?
For many Spanish-speaking children in our district, it takes until the fourth or fifth grade to pass the Spanish exam, often two or three years after the child has taught himself or herself to read English. They miss English instruction in the early years when they could acquire a new language far more easily than later, and many of them never catch up. As secondary students they tend to have substandard spoken and, especially, written English.
On a statewide level, 18 years of putting English on the back burner has produced questionable results. In 1982, when California had 431,449 non-English-fluent students, 57,336 such students were moved into regular classes. Ten years later, with 1,076,705 such kids, the state’s school districts actually moved fewer: 55,527, according to the 1993 Little Hoover Commission report. This should not be surprising, since with $1 billion going to the state for bilingual education ($80 million to Los Angeles), the real money is in keeping kids in the primary language.
A reasonable person could ask: Can we modify our bilingual programs so that they work better? Well, it turns out we can’t.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a LEARN school or if your old region is now called a cluster, the district has stated explicitly that no school may teach English first to a limited-English speaker.
What might happen in new, smaller districts? Sixteen California school districts have modified their programs to teach English to limited-proficiency students from the earliest grades. As smaller districts, they could heed the educated opinions of teachers and parents. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the hundreds of parents and teachers who question these programs face a bureaucratic maze.
Turning to management, no event more indicts the district than the recent treatment of Van Nuys High School’s medical math-science and performing arts magnets. Van Nuys had been forced by Downtown fiat to eliminate the medical program and severely cut back the others. The reason: a board vote in March decreeing that all high schools add room for ninth-grade classes. This left Van Nuys the option of using magnet school space for the ninth-graders.
If ever there was a district that loved to shoot itself in the foot, this is it. Van Nuys’ magnets have received nationwide recognition for their excellence. Thanks to unprecedented community outrage, the principal of Van Nuys says he will explore the possibility of going year-round to produce classroom space, another option the public did not want. Can you imagine a small district eliminating these programs without community input? The superintendent of such a district would be tarred and feathered.
The mismanagement and neglect that led to past breakup movements is evident today, cosmetic efforts and Band-Aid fixes notwithstanding. Those political efforts may have made things worse, in fact, as L.A.’s falling test scores and financial scandals suggest. The public needs, and may now get, a breakup movement with teeth in it.
Douglas Lasken of Woodland Hills teaches elementary school in the Los Angeles public schools. He is a member of the board of Valley Advocates for Local Unified Education, which supports the breakup of the Los Angeles School District.