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Going aggro on the state of schools

What’s new in public education?

Slashing and burning, chaos and confusion, fear and loathing.

The usual.

The only good news is that people are starting to fight back.

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Students are complaining about budget cuts in letters to Gov. Schwarzenegger, who is responding with what Deputy LAUSD Supt. Ray Cortines calls “smoke and mirrors.”

The “Grateful Dads” are singing protest songs in South Pasadena, where parents marched in the streets last weekend at a “Flunk the Budget” rally.

And as we celebrate the 30-year anniversary of Prop. 13’s drain on funding for schools and other public services, commentator/author/agitator Sandra Tsing Loh, the conscience of public education, is toting around her very own drawing of Brylcreemed Public Enemy No. 1 -- Howard Jarvis.

“We’re 46th or 48th in the nation in funding,” the animated and outraged Loh said at Valley Alternative Magnet School, where she was picking up her daughter from an after-school ballet program.

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Loh, who along with parent Romy Longwell and other volunteers worked to establish the after-school activities -- and also raised money for a music program at Valley Alternative -- invites other flaming-mad parents to join a rally planned for June 17 in Sacramento.

The Angry Tired Teachers Band of Hayward will be there, along with the Fresno Migrant Scholars and the Burning Moms, described by Loh as “underpaid, over-stressed public school moms tired of baking endless pans of Snickerdoodles” to fill funding gaps.

Watch out, Sacramento, Loh warned, because these are women prone to hot flashes.

“Perimenopausal, middle-class moms. Type A, aggro moms.”

Loh provided a demonstration of what an aggro mom is capable of when she fanned out several copies of a slick brochure titled “Parent Guide, LAUSD Budget Crisis 2008-09.” The publication, aimed both at explaining the budget mess and goading parents into action, is exactly the kind of inappropriate gesture Loh has come to expect from the financially pinched district.

So you don’t get the wrong impression, Loh would agree that LAUSD has some swell schools and a record of steady if slow improvement, and she reserves true apoplexy for California’s fall from national model to national embarrassment when it comes to per-pupil funding.

But her eyes also bug out of her head when she talks about L.A. Unified school board candidates spending MILLIONS OF DOLLARS on their campaigns, or the district’s wildly expensive consulting contracts or the aforementioned parent guide.

“It’s not just cuts, but it’s cuts and then a GLOSSY BROCHURE!” fumed Loh, who suggested this might not have been the best time to impress parents with fancy pie charts, even as the district searches for ways to close a shortfall in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Her favorite picture in the tri-fold brochure, among the many, is of an inexplicably giddy mother and daughter posing on a red tartan couch for no particular reason. Hey, a little Scottish style will warm any home, even if Sissy’s math coach just got laid off and the art program has been tanked.

“What person pulled the trigger on this?” Loh demanded.

Cortines says he wondered the same thing.

“It’s one of the things I’m putting a stop to,” said the recently appointed administrator. Sure, he said, it’s important to make parents aware of the challenges and recruit them into the cause, but “a slick, Fifth Avenue brochure” might not be the best way to reach the many parents who are unemployed, on welfare, or uninterested in the nuances of categorical funding.

With Cortines’ help, I found out the text was written not by one of the many PR people on the LAUSD payroll, but by an outside contractor. Also, 37,000 of them rolled off the presses at a cost of $11,353.40, and here’s the best part:

A district official admitted that the people in the photos may not have any connection to LAUSD.

Some of them are so-called “stock photos,” which means that the happy campers on the tartan couch might actually have been posing for a furniture ad.

I know $11,000 isn’t a lot of dough in the big picture. But I’m with Cortines when he says, “We should be spending that money on supplies and other needs.”

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The bigger problem, though, is up north. When the students of Emerson Middle School in the Westwood area wrote to the governor, protesting huge proposed cuts, Schwarzenegger responded to student Devin Rojas with a letter that said, in part:

“We live in a great state, but we don’t have a great budget system to match.”

Yes, and Schwarzenegger hasn’t come through on promises to change that. Nor has the Legislature tackled the issue in any meaningful way.

Schwarzenegger claimed in the same letter that he had fully funded “Proposition 98 for K-12 education.”

But Emerson Principal Kathy Gonnella thinks that’s not much to brag about. “Proposition 98 was supposed to set the floor, not the ceiling, for school funding. In that letter, he wants us to jump for joy that he’s reestablished Prop. 98 funding, and it’s nowhere where it needs to be.

“I’m a product of L.A. schools, as is my daughter, and I know what it was like in the ‘60s and ‘70s with funding amounts, when we were No. 1 or No. 3 in the country compared to where we are now, and it’s a disgrace.”

If you agree, and want to become a Burning Mom or a Grateful Dad, or if you just need another excuse to go to Sacramento and scream at somebody, check out www .californiachildrensrally.com for information on the June 17 rally.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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