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Public Schools at the End of the Rope

The latest rounds of catastrophic budget cuts to hit the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest public school system, should alarm everyone. Classroom sizes are swelling and about 800 teachers are losing their jobs as the school board desperately looks for ways to cut $33 million more out of its already decimated budget. These are grim days for financing public education--maybe grim enough to force Southern Californians to go beyond mere talk of reform.

No longer can large urban districts, of which Los Angeles is a prime example, be expected to shoulder all the unaddressed social problems of society--dysfunctional families, substance abuse and the negative effects of immigration, to name a few. Schools have changed dramatically since the 1940s, when teachers cited talking in class and gum-chewing as their worst problems. The top classroom problems cited by teachers today? Pregnancy and drug abuse.

The sheer numbers of children who must be educated are almost overwhelming. The state’s public schools this fall are expecting record enrollment: another 560,000 in the Los Angeles County schools, another 214,000 in San Diego County and another 178,000 in Orange County.

And though it’s true that immigration has had a tremendous impact in larger urban districts such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Ana, immigration is not the only reason for overcrowded schools. Births in California have been at record levels since 1985, and migration from other states has zoomed, reaching a post-World War II record in 1989.

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The danger is that all this dispiriting news will provide the final reason for the middle class to abandon the public school system. Better that such full and thorough discontent finally provide an impetus for change; as the saying goes, there’s nothing like a noose around one’s neck to concentrate the mind wonderfully.

For years the business community and politicians have been issuing reports saying that the nation cannot thrive without a stronger public education system. Everyone knows that. The many public/private partnerships that want to improve education can cut back now on the studies (most educators already know what works) and focus on how to implement a few improvements well. At this point, a few well-publicized pieces of good news about local public education would go a long way toward restoring public confidence.

The state has started down the right road with its greater emphasis on preventive health care and pre-school programs. There must be much more of that--otherwise teachers will simply spend their careers doing remedial social work. Schools can do only so much, and, as they are set up now, they have hit the wall. Now’s the time for all pro-education groups to come together and summon the political will to move.


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