Orange County, Calif., residents unhappy with schools

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Education is the issue that Orange County, Calif., residents might be losing sleep over, according to a recent media-sponsored poll.

About 35 percent criticized the education system, when asked about their most pressing concerns.

By varying majorities they said they wanted more for their money:

They want bilingual education eliminated. Class-size kept small. Caps on administrative spending. Teacher-competency tests. Mandatory homework. Mandatory summer school for students who fail. And random drug tests for students.

In interviews, a sampling of survey respondents said they based their recommendations on personal experience.

Harry Larson of Laguna Hills, Calif., recalls when schools concentrated on the three R’s — reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.

A retired computer engineer, Larson, 76, said he detected the decline of academic standards when he went to a bank and found that both the teller and bank supervisor couldn’t calculate the interest accrued in his daughter’s college fund.

“The teller looked glassy-eyed when I told her how to do the arithmetic,” said Larson. “It was such an elementary thing. It made me think that schools haven’t been teaching the fundamentals.”

Not having the basics has a multiplier effect, Larson said. “When people can’t do the math, they don’t seem to understand the effect of the national debt or taxes.”

Lillian Molina of Irvine compared American schools to those of her native Chile and said California public schools have passed kids along without teaching them to read and write.

She teaches at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and has encountered sophomores and juniors who can’t write an essay.

“In Europe or South America, there was no thought of having a child move on because of social problems,” said Molina, who put one of her sons in a summer math program to improve his grades. “They have to take that course again until they can read and write.”

Bruce Mershon of Anaheim Hills said bilingual education has kept more Spanish-speaking students behind, instead of giving them an advantage. He says in New York — where he went to school — Cubans, Haitians, Asians and Middle Easterners all learned English without learning in their native language first.

“I know a janitor with a heavy Mexican accent. He’s a third- or fourth-generation Mexican-American. He’s been here longer than my family. There’s just no excuse for that.”

The hot topic in education this year has been bilingual education, a program that serves about 1.4 million out of 6 million California students. An initiative, spearheaded by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz and Santa Ana schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman, seeks to eliminate bilingual education and put native-language students in classes taught mostly in English.

“Bilingual education has become a political issue that means different things to different people,” said Ginger Britt, a 19-year-veteran teacher in Fullerton. “For many people in the general public, it means teaching students in their native langugage. They don’t know how children move into English classes, because there’s no consistency. In some districts, kids can take five years and in others they can move into English in six months.”

In the poll, Orange County showed strong support for the initiative, with more than 60 percent of respondents opting to eliminate the program. But when given more choices, Orange County residents preferred to restructure the bilingual program rather than eliminate it.

“We are light years away from an ideal bilingual program,” said Molina, who made sure her children were bilingual by speaking Spanish at home. “Why are people so hung up on English? Teach them German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese. Why not offer many languages so we have a country of polyglots.”

Class-size reduction got a huge thumbs up, with 63 percent supporting the change. But respondents were more divided on money matters, such as lowering the voter-approval rate from two-thirds to 50 percent on school borrowing, and capping administrative costs at 5 percent.

“Just throwing money at it won’t solve it,” said Sho-Kai Tyler of Huntington Beach. “The system’s top heavy. The money has to be reallocated for books and paper and to things that happen in the classroom.”

Tyler said requiring a quality curriculum, evaluating teachers’ class-management skills and rallying parent support will help schools more than money.

But John Plunkett of Laguna Hills said Orange County’s anti-tax movement has stripped schools of much-needed construction money.

“California led a tax revolt and now it’s made it harder for local school districts to raise funds,” Plunkett said. “The state has put so much emphasis on being fair that it doesn’t help the districts that really need new classrooms.”

The survey showed that most people wanted academic improvements in the classroom, but shared a distrust for school administrators.

Teacher competency tests, mandatory homework, summer school for failing students and random student drug tests won overwhelming support from Orange County residents.

Many respondents likened teacher-competency tests to a job-performance evaluation in business.

“In the private sector, professionals are constantly measured by their performance,” said Henry Larson, who served as a manager at aerospace giants TRW and Hughes Aircraft.

“Teachers have an affect on 25 to 30 kids on a daily basis. It’s not too much to ask that they get tested. We don’t want a destructive person in charge of our kids.”

Many teachers would welcome evaluations, but say competency tests should be part of the training process.

“Tell an attorney to take a competency test after they’ve passed the bar,” said Bill Hart, a Santa Ana principal. “Tightening up the credentialing process is fine, but competency tests say we’re not competent professionals now.”

Hart says every election year, educators are under fire from politicians looking for a defenseless target.

“Educators are receiving a bad rap — a blanket indictment — despite our efforts to improve,” Hart said.

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