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Not Even the Schools Can Win at Lotto

There is a convenience store not far from our house that usually lives up to its name. It’s a handy place for picking up cold drinks or the odd item forgotten during regular shopping.

This week was an exception. When I stopped in Monday morning, people were three deep at the counter. Others were standing in the aisles filling out small slips of paper. The hand-lettered poster on the door of the store’s cooler told me why: The jackpot for this week’s state lottery was expected to reach $100 million. These were punters, not shoppers.

As I finally made my way to the counter, an elderly woman bent nearly double over her cane doled out enough change to pay for a box of cereal, a small container of milk, an apple and five quick-picks. Beside her, a middle-aged fellow in workingman’s khaki watched closely as the clerk counted out $100 in Lotto tickets.

Finally, it was my turn. “How many tickets, sir?” asked one of the store’s genial proprietors.

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How many, indeed?

To me, the California Lottery, which was sold as a source of funds of education, is a metaphor for much that went wrong in our collective thinking during the 1980s. It is to public finance what junk bonds were to the capital markets: a belief that, somehow, the blind hand of the market could be made to hold a magic wand whose wave could create something out of nothing.

The results of that “magical thinking” were as visible as the lottery results in Thursday’s newspaper. Faced with the need to cut $317 million from next year’s budget, the Los Angeles Board of Education has notified 980 teachers and others that they will be laid off June 30.

About two-thirds of the district’s roughly $4-billion yearly budget goes for teachers’ salaries and benefits. Three years ago, the teachers’ union--United Teachers-Los Angeles--struck for more pay and won. They have received an 8% raise in each of the last three years. During that same period, the state funds allocated to the district have grown 3% to 4% per year. The new austerity budget proposed by Gov. Pete Wilson contains no increase at all.

Hence this crisis, with causes as pitiless as its consequences.

One particularly acute observer familiar with the district’s administration described it this way: “The entire public sector is under-funded. Proposition 13 and the reduction in the income tax rates have seen to that. It’s not right, but it is a reality. Given that, the salary settlement the board made with the teachers was something they couldn’t afford then and they can’t afford now.

“Of course, teachers are not overpaid; they’re underpaid. But the system that pays them is under-funded. If you eliminated every non-teaching position in the district, there still wouldn’t be enough to eliminate this deficit.”

There’s another, equally heart-felt, equally valid perspective to be gleaned from the classrooms and corridors of the Cahuenga Elementary School, one of the places in which this city’s future is struggling to be born. Cahuenga sits on a quiet side street a few blocks east of Western. It’s a neighborhood of immigrants. About a third of the school’s 950 students are are Koreans; most others are Central Americans.

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Cahuenga confounds the popular notion that public education, like the manufacture of automobiles, is something for which America has lost its knack. It is a bright but Spartan place of spirited teachers and attentive, well-behaved pupils.

There is a 6,000-volume library--1,000 titles in Korean, 2,000 in Spanish, 3,000 in English--furnished with chairs purchased at a swap meet. There is an active parents’ council whose non-English-speaking president, Nam Suk Choe, led a drive to collect aluminum cans to purchase and plant trees around the playground.

In teacher Steve Ormond’s first-grade class, 27 Spanish-speaking children add and subtract three-digit numbers and turn out compositions whose vocabulary, spelling, grammar and penmanship equal the standards of any elite private school. Next door, Sandy Burnam’s pupils do the same, although in Korean and English.

In Heajin Moon’s third-grade class, Korean-speaking students work under a hand-lettered bill of civil rights whose first article reads: “I have a right to be happy and to be treated with compassion in this room.”

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To principal Lloyd Houske, the school district’s impending cuts threaten all this--along with the measurable improvement his teachers have helped their students achieve in test scores. “I got a layoff notice, and so did seven or eight of our newest people. That’s a tragedy because they’re some of the ones we’re most excited about getting.

“By the way, they all were recruited after the district started paying more money for teachers. It does makes a difference. The higher the salary, the better the quality of people who seem to be interested in teaching. Most of these people are making $28,000 a year. That’s not a fortune, you know.

“There are always going to be a small percentage of people who come into teaching just for the love of it. But with the number of kids we’re trying to reach, it’s not reasonable to rely on that spirit of self-sacrifice. You also need good salaries.”

Adeline Shoji, Cahuenga’s program coordinator, agrees: “We need teachers who are bright and who have convictions. Then, we need to support them in that conviction with decent salaries. It takes a lot of creativity to use the public’s money well. Good teachers, capable teachers, caring teachers do that. You can’t afford not to have them.”

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There’s the paradox: Because in a system starved for funds at its source--in Sacramento--you also can’t afford to have them. Worthy institutions, like the schools, are forced to cannibalize themselves, and the social contract is reduced to an agreement that covers only those with the brute power to enforce its terms for themselves.

Oh, about the lottery. I bought two tickets. One for myself and one for the schools. The schools lost--but then, so did I.


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