Problems in L.A. Schools Driving Education Initiatives

Proposed reforms on next week's ballot are inspired by the travails of California's most gargantuan district -- but are they really called-for throughout the state?

Bay Area voters will find two measures on the fat June 2 ballot that would change public education across California, though their roots run deep in Los Angeles school politics.

The better-known measure is Proposition 227, the English-only plan to end bilingual education for the state’s 1.3 million immigrant children.

Its backers have amassed a phenomenal 71 percent approval rating in polls so far, with a simple message that has touched a nerve with voters around the state: All children need to learn English.

“Most immigrant children . . . should be taught English while they are young,” says Jaime Escalante, who gained fame for teaching calculus to low-income students and whose story was portrayed in the 1988 movie “Stand & Deliver.” Escalante, an immigrant himself, is now active in the English-only campaign.

Few dispute that bilingual programs around the state can be improved by ensuring that students can opt out if their parents request it, and by transitioning students to mainstream classes more quickly, for example.

But those who want to end it altogether have employed a successful strategy of highlighting bilingual education troubles in Los Angeles — and suggesting that they are typical across the state.

Backers kicked off the Prop. 227 campaign last summer by calling attention to a 1996 boycott by a group of Latino parents who demanded that a Los Angeles elementary school teach their children in English. To great effect, the weeklong boycott was portrayed as evidence that Latino children cannot learn English in California schools.

And the news that some Los Angeles schools send immigrant children to the playground for three hours a day quickly created a perception that all pupils who speak little English are shortchanged, particularly after backers faxed the story to media outlets across the state.

“The Los Angeles Unified bilingual (system) is dreadful,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley software entrepreneur sponsoring Prop. 227. “I believe 60 percent of children in bilingual programs are in L.A.”

The proportion is actually far smaller. Just 25 percent of California children who are taught in a language other than English — about 102,000 students — are in Los Angeles, records show. Even that is less than one-third of the district’s 308,000 students who speak little or no English.

But for politicians who want education reform measures approved at the ballot box, Los Angeles is the place to tap for emotional appeal.

In the state’s largest district — with 682,000 students, compared with San Francisco’s 63,000 — cynicism runs high about the massive system, which is fat with bureaucracy and rife with racial politics. A gold mine of dissatisfied voters hungry for change, Los Angeles is also so large that its problems can seem to represent the state’s, said Bruce Fuller, co-director of PACE (Policy Analysis for California Education), a research group of Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley.

For example, Unz describes Prop. 227 as a way of “reunifying California society after years of extreme divisiveness.”

But unless they have been to Los Angeles lately, Bay Area voters may not see society as riven by racial and ethnic strife, Fuller said.

“In the Bay Area, people have a more respectful view of different cultural groups,” he said. “But in L.A., there are many more divisions. There’s a perception that if we don’t teach these kids English, they’ll be a threat to society. That can play out in a place like L.A., where you have these ethnic tensions and social class divisions.”

A second education measure steeped in Los Angeles school politics is Proposition 223, which would cap school administration expenditures at 5 percent of a district’s overall budget. Those failing to comply would be fined about $175 per pupil, money that would be given to districts that did comply.

Opponents say that the measure, developed by the Los Angeles teachers’ union, would benefit Los Angeles at the expense of smaller districts, which would be at a disadvantage when paring down budgets.

Statewide, districts spend an average of 7.3 percent on administration — or about $700 million more than the proposition would allow, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst.

The Los Angeles teachers’ union began keeping track of how much its district spent on administration in the early 1990s, after their salaries were cut 10 percent. They forged an unlikely alliance with conservative state lawmaker Bill Leonard of San Bernardino County, who tried and failed several times to get a similar spending cap through the Legislature.

By 1996, the Los Angeles teachers were gathering signatures for a ballot measure.

Today, it is the rare school district that spends 5 percent or less of its budget on administration. Los Angeles spends 7.4 percent, San Francisco 8.4 percent, Oakland 9.9 percent, Mount Diablo 5.5 percent, and San Jose 10.6 percent.

Backers came up with the figure of 5 percent because the national average is 4.8 percent, they said. Opponents call it an arbitrary percentage.

Steve Blazak, a spokesman for the Los Angeles teachers’ union, said the measure is intended to “get rid of bureaucratic bloat and create a lean, mean machine here in L.A. Unified.”

Ironically, he said, an earlier effort to reduce bureaucracy in the huge district by creating sub-districts called “clusters,” resulted in yet more layers of administrative bureaucracy in each cluster. Asked why Bay Area voters should approve educational measures meant to solve problems that afflict mainly Los Angeles, Blazak said his district does tend to push its weight around the state.

“We’re kind of like the 800-pound gorilla,” he said.

Comments are closed.