Public Schools Look Back on a Difficult Year

Times Staff Writers

Dazed and confused. That's how many in California public schools felt by the end of 2002 -- a difficult year despite some promising moments for the state's 6 million schoolchildren.

Schools struggled to produce better academic results and obey a bevy of new rules from Washington even as they were forced to consider layoffs and other desperate measures because of the state's gaping budget shortfall.

"We're expected to do more with less," lamented Dick Van Der Laan, Long Beach Unified School District spokesman.

Campuses were fascinated at times with such student-life issues as backpack loads, junk food, cell phones and whether the Pledge of Allegiance should be recited in class. But those, as the new year approached, seemed minor compared with statewide money shortages and new federal rules.

School district leaders and state education officials scrambled to comply with the new No Child Left Behind education law that President Bush signed in January. That measure requires campuses serving low-income children to hire only "highly qualified" teachers and for students in failing schools to have the option of transferring to better campuses.

District superintendents around the state called the law unrealistic, given shortages of qualified teachers, classroom space and other resources. But the Bush administration stood firm, insisting there would be no cause for denying transfers.

Those districts that have tried to restrict transfers to maintain ethnic balances received a blow when the California Supreme Court backed a father who argued that a Huntington Beach Union High School District policy limiting student transfers on the basis of race violates state law.

The August ruling was the first appellate court decision dealing with Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot initiative ending affirmative action in a K-12 setting. Even as state educators fretted over the No Child Left Behind act, they began discussing whether to delay enforcement of California's new high school graduation exam because of poor passing rates. Less than half of the state's current 11th graders have passed both the English and math portions of the exam, state officials reported.

Still, California schools had cause to celebrate in 2002: Stanford 9 standardized test scores rose for the fourth consecutive year, albeit less than in previous years. And California voters reached generously into their pockets for schools, approving $22.4 billion worth of school construction bonds in November, the largest amount from a single election day in state history.

The sweet taste of victory turned sour just a few weeks later when the district revealed that two of the six buildings at the half-finished Belmont Learning Complex were built over an earthquake fault. The district had revived Belmont earlier in the year after deciding that pollution problems could be mitigated. The seismic revelation, however, led district officials to once again halt plans to finish the school.

L.A. Unified also launched a promising remedial program for 35,000 middle school and high school students who read below a third-grade level.

For their part, California's students regained the right to carry pagers and cell phones on campuses under a new law that reversed a long-standing ban on the devices, feared as tools of drug dealers. And students even got a little help lightening their loads in an era when so many schools have banned lockers. The state passed a law requiring the state Board of Education to establish maximum weight standards for school textbooks, thus reducing future backpack burdens.

A growing number of students can't handle the extra weight. A December report by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy found that more than one-quarter of the state's schoolchildren are overweight and nearly 40% are not physically fit -- most pronounced in Los Angeles County.

In the hope of fighting childhood obesity on one front, two Orange County districts -- Newport-Mesa Unified and Capistrano Unified -- pulled junk food and soda from campus vending machines in the fall.

Schoolchildren also saw one of their classroom routines challenged when a federal appeals court ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. The decision, stemming from a Northern California case, struck down a 1954 law that added the words "under God" to the pledge. The decision is on hold while appeals play out.

But state budget woes dominated the education agenda as the year drew to a close. Just weeks before the December school break, Gov. Gray Davis announced more than $3 billion in cuts to public schools.

"It's going to be very painful and tough," said Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer, whose district will have to cut about $140 million.

Suburban districts in wealthier areas felt the fiscal ax perhaps even more deeply as they were forced to expand class sizes in the same year they cut programs that urban districts had eliminated years before. In Irvine Unified, $1.3 million in parent donations saved the smaller classes, but dozens of staff positions were cut, music and art programs ended and one elementary school closed.

In response to the proposed budget cuts, the University of California and California State University systems approved their first systemwide student fee increases in eight years.


Staff writer Claire Luna contributed to this report.

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