Saturday, June 03, 2006

LAUSD versus the Mayor

I have been invited by the Alliance for School Choice to write an opinion piece on the battle over control of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The Alliance is dedicated to improving K-12 education by providing options such as school vouchers, tuition tax credits, and public charter schools. If my article is accepted it will be published in edspresso, the blogosphere arm of the Alliance.

If you live outside of California or have been hiding your head in a pile of books (a good thing) I should explain that the new-ish mayor of Los Angeles, the Honorable Antonio Villaraigosa, is attempting a hostile takeover of the LAUSD. In this fight AV is joined by other mayors of the cities served by the school district and he is opposed by the school board and the teacher’s union.

Since my own children are grown up and they attended parochial schools in the East, I have little detailed knowledge of the California public school system. (But I have heard things!) Thus I needed to do some research. I found a splendid web site called
School Matters, operated by Standard & Poor, that provides detailed information on every school and school district in the country. Instead of giving a long list of statistics about LAUSD without any context, it will be more informative to compare LA to the district where I live, Palos Verdes, and to the state as a whole.

Most of my friends in Palos Verdes have children who are in or have graduated from the schools here. They include parochial, private and public schools, and the general opinion is that these schools are uniformly good. I have some personal experience with the teachers, administrators and PTAs and have found them to be universally dedicated to educational excellence. I have heard that the schools are not as uniformly good in Los Angeles.

The following table lists important demographic, financial and educational performance statistics for the three public school cases studied.

-------------------Palos Verdes---Los Angeles----California
Spending ppupil----$6740------------$8570---------$7550
Classroom ppupil---$4390------------$4980---------$4590
Econ Disadvant------2%---------------75%------------48%
English Learners-----6%---------------44%------------25%
Ethnic major-----White 65%----Hispanic 73%---Hispanic 45%

English Proficiency---83%------------32%------------45%
Math Proficiency-----85%------------38%------------48%

The data are quite revealing. In terms of demographics, LAUSD is huge, largely Hispanic, with a high percentage of English learners, and economically disadvantaged compared to Palos Verdes and even compared to the state.

In terms of school spending, the per-pupil operating expenses are lowest in Palos Verdes and highest in Los Angeles. LAUSD spends 13% more than the state and 27% more than Palos Verdes. Note, however, that LA spends only 58% of the operating dollars on classroom instruction compared to 64% in Palos Verdes. The Alliance for School Choice is promoting a Sixty-five Percent Solution.

The difference in performance is stark. In Palos Verdes, 83%/85% of students are performing at grade level. In Los Angeles it is 32%/38%, well below the state averages of 45%/48%. The high school dropout rate in Los Angeles is 50%. There is no denying that the schools in Los Angeles (and statewide) are largely failing. The question is what to do about it. Since the spending is already substantial (for such abysmal results), is it realistic to think that spending even more is the solution? Will mayoral takeover solve the problems?

Clearly the high rate of English learners in LA is a huge hurdle to overcome. The answer, of course, is English immersion at the earliest age and religious-like dedication to the basics, particularly English and math. There are other impediments too and the
Public Agenda 2006 Reality Check national survey of students, parents and teachers points to some of the problems. High dropout rates, kids promoted without learning, profanity and disrespect for teachers, fighting, drug and alcohol abuse are "very serious" problems in schools, according to large numbers of the nation's black and Hispanic students. So who is responsible?

It is revealing that four in 10 black parents say they feel a teacher has unfairly punished their child. When I was in school, I was happy to be unfairly punished by a teacher as long as my father didn’t hear about it, or there would be hell to pay at home. The parents must demand discipline and must support the teachers if education is going to work.

Teachers, meanwhile, are troubled by parents who don’t hold their children accountable or control TV and video game time. Again this falls on the parents. If kids are not doing enough homework, if they are skipping classes or disrupting class, it is the parent's fault, and no amount of money or teacher dedication is going to fix it.

What about a change at the top? Some folks wonder: How could it be any worse than it is? I must admit that the LA district needs to be taken by the collar and seriously shaken, but is the mayor the one to do it? I spoke with a friend who serves on the LA School Board who was worried about (1) school funds being lost to City projects, (2) conflict of interest over new school sites that are desired by private developers who contribute to political parties and (3) management churn that occurs whenever the City government changes. Those seem to be valid issues, but none get to the heart of the student performance problem. And neither does anything I have heard from the Villaraigosa side.

I fall back on the basics. What works in every other area of life ought to work in K-12 education and that is freedom. One size does not fit all in hats or in education. Parents ought to have the right to choose the school and the curriculum they want for their children. English learners need a different kind of focus than kids who already know how to read when they get to kindergarten. Some kids will thrive in a professional career and need advanced math and science or language arts, while some kids would be better off and happier pursuing a trade. Some kids need a school where discipline is the foremost priority. (My Jesuit high school would suit them well.) These different kids should be in schools optimized for their needs.

For these reasons, and many more, I believe that school vouchers, tuition tax credits, and public charter schools are the keys to the education vault. Expanded parental choice in education has led to the creation of more than 3,600 charter schools that educate more than a million students and offer some of the most innovative instructional models in the country. Vouchers or tax credits will expand this academic freedom to the private sector; then watch the American students take off like a rocket.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

School Vouchers are great, the rest of your argument is weak. Having worked in the LAUSD for 30 years I feel competant enough to offer an opinion. The kids in PV are priveleged in that they have parents who are involved with the students and school. There is a family background that supports this. Evidence in SOME of LAUSD shows a lack of parental support maybe due to family economics or a language cultural problem. I am not speaking about Spanish, the District has over a hundred different languages spoken at home. To compare LAUSD with Penninsula schools is like comparing apples to grass seed. The teachers in LAUSD can hold their own against local teachers but are severly handicapped by not having responsive students. I don't have the free time you have to write blogs but I will continue on this subject later. Compare Penn Hi with Taft of LAUSD and see what you get.


11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post!! I totally agree with you!!


11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would look at the combined bureaucracies and budgets of the District and the City. The mayor already appoints the heads of Airports, Water and Power and Harbor departments. My guess is that if Antonio takes over the LAUSD, he will become the most powerful politician in California outside the Governor.


11:37 AM  
Blogger Free Agency Rules said...

I love vouchers but wonder if High School shouldn't just revert back to just focusing mainly on the three R's.

At K-12 I don't think at least 80% of kids know what the want to do in life and that this is where the old saying.."a well rounded education" is really needed at least as far as the three R's go.

I am not big on the importance of grades, I am an old guy and I never once recall anyone needing to know my grades in H.S.

Just make sure the kids get the three R's and maybe some economics, history, Constitution, and some critical thinking skills.

When they leave H.S., they should mostly know the above and how think analytically. An exit exam is Key to insuring they are prepared to face life and they have not been given a free ride or their failure in the job market will be devastating.

Great Post as usual!


4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,

An excellent and thought provoking piece with an interesting statistical chart! Impressive! You do good work.


9:15 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Thanks Bobbie,
I wonder what is going to happen and if the schools will improve. I feel so sorry for those parents, with their kids flunking or dropping out. I can't imagine how they cope.

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Parents? I think that is part of the problem. One parent working hard as a sole support and trying to keep track of the kids and of course, a lack of education so they often can't help their kids. No books in the home. I volunteered for 2 years at Toberman to mentor elementary age kids. They were all a grade behind and struggling to learn. An avid student was rare and mostly they were glad to "get out of the tutoring situation." Where warranted, I would reward them with a book of their very own that they could keep forever-their very own! Very exciting!! " Could they take it home and keep it? " Yes, of course, that is why it is being given to you. I never saw much interest on the parent's part for their child's education and sensed that most of the parents just plain felt inadequate. My 27 year old told me the other day, "I never knew I had the option not to go to college. It was always-when you go to college........." In home training and expectations.


9:18 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Thanks for the feedback. I'm glad you approve of school vouchers. Would you vote for them if there was a referendum? The tax credit is just a financial mechanism for delivering vouchers, but I prefer the straight cash route. Just give the LA parents vouchers for $8570 for each school age child and let them spend it on any school the parents choose. What's wrong with charter schools?

PVUSD and LAUSD are both public school districts. One works and one does not. That is why I compared them. And the public spending per pupil does not explain the difference in performance. As I said the 44% English learners in LA are a major problem. Another is lack of parental involvement. The LA families are so poor partly because there are so many single mother families, it's no wonder the parental involvement is low. Discipline is another huge problem. I blame the parents first, and the kids second.


9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill -- Excellent piece. One other important issue — if LA City Gov’t takes over, then parents lose voter representation. Many LAUSD families live outside LA city limits and don’t vote for Los Angeles’ Mayor. The taxation then becomes taxation without representation. And the LA government is not accountable to anyone outside LA city limits. Should the Villiaraigosa power grab be successful, I'd bet a good constitutional lawyer could get it thrown out on constitutional grounds.


9:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent thinking and writing on this important topic. Thanks for all that you do.


9:21 PM  
Blogger fetching jen said...

Interesting opportunity Bill. The number #1 problem is the non-English speaking students; and you can correctly assume that their parents are non-English speaking as well. Thus, there is NO cummunication between parent and school, even if the parent cares. total immersion is the answer, even for the older students. If no one speaks Spanish or Tagalog or Hmong or any of the fifty or so languages spoken by immigrants in this state, the kids will learn - even if they are not at grade level.

And vouchers are the answer. Just as in business, competition forces success and fiscal responsibility. Throwing more money at the schools has already proven futile as it just goes to more layers of Administrators.

Speak ONE language - English, offer competition, and you'll see teachers and Administrators rising to the occasion. And maybe the new English speakers can teach it to their parents.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Free Agency Rules said...

I agree with Jen!


5:02 PM  
Blogger Free Agency Rules said...

Oh, and don't forget to check out that moneymaking website.


If you turn on word verification, you will get rid of those.


5:03 PM  

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