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LAUSD without borders

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All too often, a child’s ZIP Code is his destiny. In Los Angeles, it is possible to discern from that five-digit number alone not only whether he lives in a safe neighborhood or whether there’s a nearby park — poorer areas of the city are notably lacking in public green spaces — but also his chance, and his children’s chances, of living in a different neighborhood at some point in the future. That’s in large part because such children often attend low-performing neighborhood schools where the likelihood of earning a diploma hovers around 50%, and the odds of upward mobility are worse.

Los Angeles Unified school board President Monica Garcia is now asking whether all that might be changed, not by continuing incremental efforts to improve schools within certain neighborhoods but by eliminating ZIP Codes from the equation altogether. What would happen, she dares to ask, if L.A. Unified simply eliminated enrollment boundaries, so that students who lived in any part of the district had equal claim to classroom seats in any school anywhere in the district?

The practical answer is: chaos. It’s unclear how the most popular schools in the most-sought-after neighborhoods would choose among the many students who would no doubt apply for admission. Furthermore, in an area as sprawling as Los Angeles, getting students to their chosen schools could be a nightmare. Bus transportation would make little sense with students from any given area headed every which way, and even if parents had the time and resources to drive their children to school — which many don’t — do we really want to put tens of thousands of additional cars on our crowded roads each morning and evening? Parents who pay big mortgages to live near high-performing schools would, of course, be outraged, and many would probably leave the district if their children weren’t admitted to a school nearby, which would in turn bleed the district of more enrollment and more money that it can’t afford to lose.

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Garcia concedes that she hasn’t yet thought through the real-life ramifications of the proposal. What she has done, at a time when educational heads tend to be mired in the minutiae — such as how the money will be found to finish the school year — is open a big-sky conceptual discussion about whether society can continue to condemn children to inferior schools because of the happenstance of residency.

The resolution she introduced, which the board is scheduled to consider on Tuesday, would direct Supt. John Deasy to develop a plan to do away with enrollment boundaries. Garcia says that she’s not looking to dismantle neighborhood schools and that it’s probable that a compromise approach would emerge after any such plan is debated and finally voted on — perhaps offering more choices within smaller areas, or having schools with extra seats extend opportunities to students from outside their immediate area — but she wants to keep the discussion open to all options.

For all the devils in the details, a full debate on open enrollment would provide a new way of looking at educational inequities, and would lend new urgency to the issue. If students had endless options for attending school, racial imbalances in enrollment would begin to even out, without the need for race-based admissions. So would private donations; it’s unlikely that one school would be awash in parent-funded enrichment programs while another couldn’t afford a computer for a classroom. Teachers who in the past might have fled inner-city schools for the suburbs would have less reason to transfer. Parents who wouldn’t dream of sending their children to a rundown school in South Los Angeles might be forced to admit that it’s no more acceptable for other children to have to attend that school.

The classic response to complaints about educational inequities has been that the district has to work harder on providing top-quality neighborhood schools for low-income students. That theory, nice as it sounds, has been as fraught with practical barriers as the idea of open enrollment is. It has been too easy for parents to ignore bad public schools when their children don’t have to attend them, and too hard for parents to find good public schools when their income level doesn’t buy them housing in more affluent neighborhoods. Garcia’s resolution may not solve these problems, but with luck it might open up an overdue discussion across L.A. Unified. Good for her, for raising her head above the fray and thinking big.

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