L.A. Unified Is Given a C in Parent Survey

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Parents of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District say the Board of Education puts politics ahead of students and the bureaucracy devours money that would be better spent in classrooms, according to a survey to be released today by a new reform group.

The survey of 500 parents by the Los Angeles County Alliance for Student Achievement paints a dismal portrait, finding that nearly half of the parents gave the system a C or worse in helping students reach their academic potential. Many even fear for their children's safety, especially as they enter middle and high school.

Although parents give their children's own campuses relatively high marks, they believe their schools could be more effective if the district bureaucracy spent more money in classrooms and gave more authority to individual schools.

Parents complained as well that they don't have enough information about what is expected of their children, and that they often do not understand what it takes for their kids to get into college.

"There is a real lack of communication from the district to parents," said Sonia Hernandez, president of the Los Angeles alliance. "So many want their kids going to college and think their kids are on the path, but the students aren't."

The alliance includes some of Los Angeles' most influential educators, business executives and civic leaders. Its board of directors includes Bill Ouchi, a UCLA management professor who once served as Mayor Richard Riordan's chief of staff, and the presidents of Occidental College and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Supt. Roy Romer acknowledged that the school district needs to do a better job of communicating with parents. But he reacted angrily to the survey's findings that administrative bloat is denying important resources to schools. According to the survey, that was especially so in the poorest neighborhoods.

Romer said administrative costs are being slashed at the district's downtown headquarters and at 11 subdistrict offices so that the district can spend more on teachers' salaries and programs at schools.

In addition, the district is shifting resources to pay for school "coaches" who train reading and math teachers, he said.

"Putting together a rambling survey of parents and using it as a press release to criticize this district is absolutely counterproductive," Romer said. "They are not helping to push the wagon. They're throwing rocks in front of it."

School board President Genethia Hayes also assailed the survey. She questioned the validity of a report that reached only a sliver of the parents in a district that has 723,000 students.

"This is such a small sampling. I don't see how it can be representative of anything," Hayes said.

Officials with the alliance said the survey was statistically valid and relied on a random sample of parents drawn from throughout the district.

School Board Chief Calls Finding 'Bunk'

The survey is the first of several school district critiques planned by the alliance, a group that grew out of two previous school reform organizations.

According to the poll, 70% of the parents said the Board of Education puts politics above the best interests of students.

Hayes called the finding on school board politics "bunk," noting that the seven-member panel has adopted new reading and math programs and revamped teacher training.

"We have worked diligently to cut the politics on this board and to begin to look at real issues that affect the achievement of children," Hayes said.

At least one school board member, Caprice Young, said the report offered valuable lessons.

"These are very valid criticisms. I don't discount them for a minute. I think they need to be taken seriously," she said. "We need to do more to communicate the agenda for improving student achievement."

On at least one issue--school safety--the perceptions of parents appeared to be at odds with campus realities. Two-thirds of the parents felt that students districtwide were not safe, even though school police report that most campus crime has been declining for at least five years.

"It takes a long time to change someone's perception," said Richard Page, an assistant chief with the school police force.

The survey offered some insight into how parents gauge academic success. Most parents said they consider grades, parent-teacher conferences and progress reports better measures of academic performance than test scores.

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