Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone suggested that members of Congress use whatever universal health care system they pass for the rest of the country. The public would feel assured that the plan was sufficient and that Congress was putting itself on an equal basis with other Americans.
Boos and hisses echoed from the halls of Congress, and Wellstone backed down. But he was onto something.
I'd like to suggest that we could improve public education in Los Angeles if the Board of Education, district officials and on-site administrators worked under the same directives they impose on teachers and students.
Case in point: In September at Sylmar High School in the north Valley, where the 210, 118 and 5 freeways meet, classroom temperatures soared to between 95 and 100 degrees. Students, their faces flushed, languished at their desks. Nosebleeds were common. On the students' behalf, teachers begged for early dismissal.
But it's the district officials, sitting miles away atop the hill, who set the policy. From their air-conditioned offices, where thermostats are set so low during the summer that employees wear sweaters, officials decided that outdoor temperatures must exceed 100 degrees for five consecutive days before schools could release students early.
Last year, board members chopped teachers' salaries by 10%, making the city's teachers the third-lowest-paid in L.A. County. Is it any wonder that teachers took early retirement and that, despite massive recruitment efforts, schools opened with hundreds of positions unfilled. Administrative salaries, meanwhile, remain among the highest in the county.
How next to save money, the board pondered. Aha! Put three additional youngsters into each class! We now have one of the highest student-teacher ratios in the nation. Nevada's is 16 to 1, about half ours. In my eighth-grade English class, I have 34 students, ages 12 and 13, whose hormones, and everything else, are running amok.
But the district so decreed, in the same spirit in which the ex-Soviet leaders would declare that each field must yield an additional 100 bushels of grain.
The board saved more money by cutting janitorial services at the schools. On most campuses, classrooms are swept only twice a week and the floors washed twice a year. That's in spite of 1,400 feet marching through each room each week. A third-grade teacher confessed that she has a cockroach monitor whose job is to snatch the bugs and discreetly use a tissue to remove them from the classroom for squashing. Meanwhile, the corridors at 450 N. Grand continue to shine.
District officials and administrators do not purchase their own supplies, yet teachers are expected to, and every teacher I know does. I've bought room fans, art supplies, books and a laptop computer so my students could produce a literary magazine. I've painted my classroom and hung wallpaper to relieve the gloom of walls not painted for 30 years. Elementary schoolteachers do even more.
While every school must ration paper and access to the photocopy machines, two printing presses and thousands of reams of paper assure a continuous supply of district bulletins for our recycling baskets.
In 1989, United Teachers of Los Angeles put on the bargaining table a proposal that all administrators teach one class, for one semester, every few years. It was suggested as a way to help principals stay in touch with the changing student population and the new state-mandated curriculum. More than one principal said they'd quit before returning to a classroom.
An angry public wants more from the school system, but schools haven't changed in the past 50 years, except for the student population. I write at a slate blackboard, clean erasers by beating them together and dodge students as I run across campus to the nearest faculty restroom. Technology hasn't reached the bungalow where I teach.
We want to improve our city's public schools and we can. Let's do exactly what Sen. Wellstone suggested. From Gov. Pete Wilson on down, all public officials who pass laws and issue directives should be forced to abide by them.
Would all our education ills be cured? No. But as Tevye says in "Fiddler on the Roof," "A little bit of this, a little bit of that."