Prattling Prevaricators

L.A. school board leaders are increasingly singled out for well-deserved doses of public humiliation

We journalists in L.A. think we are terribly urbane, and certainly sophisticated enough to grasp important subtleties of civic life, such as the telltale shadow that passes over the eyes of a politician who’s lying. In truth, one need not be all that alert to identify the liars, cheats, and cowards who control certain crucial power bases in the city, because their frequent efforts to escape detection often serve to amplify their trickery, revealing enormous webs of manufactured reality and ever-expanding piles of circuitous fibs that threaten to topple them at any moment.

I’m speaking, of course, of that group of prattling prevaricators, the elected Los Angeles Unified School Board, and its hired Minister of Evasion, Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. Together now for nearly a year, these education leaders have come to represent in California the very essence of misspent public service. Accordingly, they are increasingly being singled out for heaping doses of public humiliation.

First to officially humiliate them this year was the normally soft-spoken and moderate Mayor Richard Riordan, who in February calmly explained that the belligerent, anti-reformist board “does not have the mental equipment” to rise above its own fouled culture of placing blame on children for its own incompetence and chronically lying in public to avoid scrutiny. Then in March, a survey by veteran pollster Arnold Steinberg handed the seven-member school board its second public humiliation in a month: a thunderous “poor” rating by 62% of voters, unprecedented in modern city history.

I mention these two public humiliations only as a back story to the lies — the endless, self-preserving lies that pour from school headquarters on North Grand Avenue, spouted by people who do not grasp how utterly they are despised in their own city, and how completely they will be hammered by history.

Led by ditzy board President Julie Korenstein, the board’s fossilized Old Liberals — Jeff Horton, Victoria Castro, Barbara Boudreaux, and George Kiriyama — seem unable to pass a microphone without oozing fibs. In critical ways, their lies fit together, forming a tight sea wall that repels the kind of dramatic education reforms now washing over San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

By dissecting just a few recent falsehoods, one can begin to understand why reform of L.A. Unified is impossible and district-wide breakup is inevitable. The lies spout from people who don’t grasp how utterly they’re despised in their own city, and how completely they’ll be hammered by history.

I begin with Bilingual Fiasco/Lie #4, because it is the most current.

Last month, the day the Steinberg poll slammed the school board, somebody tipped off the Daily News that the board had voted in secret to persuade thousands of Mexican-American kids not to take the long-anticipated, state-required Stanford Nine test. (Immigrant children from all countries are taking the test this month in California schools, as are all U.S.-born kids. Newly arrived immigrants are excluded).

The test, in English, will for the first time in a decade allow parents and the public to compare every California school district’s competence — and incompetence — in teaching English and several core subjects.

So privately, the board and Zacarias decided to cheat on the Stanford Nine. They sent parents a waiver form to exempt low-performing, mostly Mexican children from this month’s test, hoping that thousands of parents would sign the waiver or simply keep their kids home from the test — as did 20,000 parents last year.

As pointed out to me by maverick school board member David Tokofsky, the Stanford Nine test results in math, reading, science, language, and social studies are “expected to be truly chilling — certainly that’s what I expect.” Like me, Tokofsky believes the news will be particularly bad for Mexican immigrant children, who until now have been taking — and broadly failing — the much easier Spanish-only Aprenda test.

Caught red-handed, Zacarias flatly denied the board was trying to skew the test, and several school board members disingenuously squeaked that they were just worried that the Stanford Nine would make Mexican children “feel bad.”

“We are attaching a form for the convenience of parents …,” Zacarias insisted in a blindly defensive letter to a newspaper. “We made this change at the request of parents.”

What a lot of utter twaddle. Veteran insider Zacarias and the mental midgets who dominate the board have stonily refused for years to mail to those very same parents another waiver form they desperately needed and often requested. (You know the waiver form I mean, Ruben: the form that automatically lets immigrant parents place their children in normal English-taught classrooms, as provided under California state law.)

Outrageously, the parental right under state law to request an English-language education has for years been kept a secret from parents in L.A. Unified. Children and their parents were instead routinely told they had no choice but Spanish. Let’s call this huge falsehood Bilingual Fiasco/Lie #2.

In other words, Ruben, we know about your past mind-games with waiver forms. Please spare us your newfound concern for “parental convenience.”

Which brings me to Bilingual Fiasco/Lie #1. Lie #1 is the school board’s misbegotten claim that teaching Mexican children in their parents’ native Spanish allows them to stay afloat in their core school subjects while learning English.

In fact, the opposite is true for the 120,000 children who take the Spanish-only Aprenda — a far easier test than the Stanford Nine. Even though tested in their native Spanish, a staggering 80% of these perfectly bright, perfectly normal kids fall below the national median in math, and 72% fall below the median in reading.

So much for the bilingual mantra of segregating Mexican children into Spanish classes throughout grade school so they don’t “fall behind” their American counterparts in math and other core subjects.

Says Tokofsky, the only school board member with the guts to admit it: “Under state law, these children have to take the Stanford Nine, meaning most immigrant children will finally be tested both in Spanish and English. When the dual scores come back, the bilingual disaster is just going to be even more apparent.”

Finally, Bilingual Fiasco/Lie #3 dovetails importantly with the immediately preceding Lies 1, 2, and 4.

This particular lie was unearthed in March — refreshingly enough by the normally snoozing L.A. Times, although the real news was buried deep inside an otherwise incomprehensible Metro story.

As it happened, the district called a news conference five weeks ago to release a costly self-study (God help us!) of the effects of five years of formal bilingual education on 7,200 fifth-graders. But, under instructions from God-knows-which-lying-slimeball-in-charge at district headquarters, the district bureaucrats secretly dumped out of their sample 3,000 of the 7,200 children.

It turns out that these 3,000 kids — representing a fat 45% of the sample — still could not read or write English after five full years of “bilingual” schooling. So lying district leaders simply “lost” all 3,000 children from their stinky little study.

Sheri Annis, press secretary for the popular English for the Children initiative on the June ballot, which would ban “bilingual” programs in favor of English immersion and tutoring, says the district’s latest trickery “is typical of how the Los Angeles Unified school board hides its poor success rates and lies about what is going on in classrooms. Only when newspaper reporters really dig at it, or a parent demands and receives test scores, do these things come to light.”

Before they got caught, district officials cooed and fawned that the self-study proved bilingual education a success. But after the Times launched its inquiry, a planned news conference was abruptly canceled and the cheaters in charge skulked back to their moldy Grand Avenue offices where the light doesn’t shine.

Where does the incessant lying stop? Unfortunately, it reaches far beyond anything so modest as the bilingual program.

In March, California State University released mind-boggling SAT scores showing that L.A. Unified’s current 1998 crop of supposedly top seniors — all excitedly bound for state colleges next September — cannot, in fact, read, write or compute at high school level. Thousands of grads who received B and C grades from L.A. Unified will require intensive remedial re-education in college, and thousands simply will not make it through.

Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed is so furious over the district’s butt-protecting use of mass grade inflation that this month he is listing the test scores by high school on a special web page for parents and taxpayers. Each score represents a betrayed teenager tricked by their teachers into believing that their easy and substandard school work was worthy of B and C marks.

One can hardly blame the teachers for creating these huge Ponzi schemes. The culture of cheating and lying emanates from the school board. I was reminded of this last year when board President Julie Korenstein sent me a clipping (which she primly labeled: “For your information!”) of a study theorizing that poor babies don’t get hugged, and this neglect holds them back later in school.

Finally, the biggest lie of all — the one that preserves the rigid resistance to change at L.A. Unified — had been trotted out. And, if I may paraphrase Korenstein’s message, it goes something like this:

We adults are doing our best. It’s the children who can’t succeed.

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