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Academic Deficiences Force Takeover of Calif. District

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California lawmakers have approved legislation authorizing the state to take over administration of the Compton school district on the grounds of academic deficiencies.

If Gov. Pete Wilson signs the bill, which passed this month following the state's marathon budget impasse, Compton would become the first district in the state to be taken over for reasons other than financial insolvency.

But school officials and residents of the urban enclave of Los Angeles County maintain that their district is being singled out unfairly because of a long-running feud between district officials and the sponsor of the legislation.

"Granted, there may be problems of education,'' said Kalem Aquil, a father of three students in the Compton schools. "To take away local control is no way to resolve a problem.''

Located about a dozen miles south of downtown Los Angeles, Compton is a largely black and Hispanic community with a high rate of poverty. For many of the 32,600 students who attend the district's 37 schools, English is not their native language.

The city has been plagued by gang violence in recent years.

The Compton district also has the lowest average scores on statewide standardized tests--a ranking it has held since 1984, according to Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr., the author of the state-takeover bill.

'Suffering Enough'

"The children have been suffering long enough,'' said Mr. Murray, whose legislative district includes Compton. "The present leadership in that district has not been able to do anything about it.''

Under the bill, the state superintendent would be authorized to take over the district if it was determined to be "low achieving'' based on such criteria as standardized test scores, dropout rate, and percentage of students taking college-preparatory courses.

Once that determination was made, the state chief would appoint a trustee to operate the schools for an initial period of three years, during which the district would be reorganized.

Mr. Murray began his quest to give the state the authority to take over academically bankrupt schools about four years ago. The state already has the authority to take fiscal control of a district, such as Oakland and Richmond, that has been found to be financially insolvent.

"Today, if a school district does not handle its money properly, the state is authorized to put it into receivership,'' Mr. Murray said. "But if they are educationally or academically bankrupt, there is no mechanism.''

"I happen to think our children are at least as important as our money,'' he added.

Fight for Control Seen

Mr. Murray's initial proposal, which was similar to New Jersey's pioneering state-takeover law, would have applied to any district. When he failed to get that through, Mr. Murray narrowed his bill to cover Compton only.

"As long as it was a bill being pushed like the New Jersey bill, everybody was against it,'' said Superintendent J.L. Handy of Compton. "As soon as he put Compton on it, everybody said, 'fine with us.'''

Mr. Handy, who has been the Compton superintendent for two years, traces the legislation to a 10-year battle between Mr. Murray and the district. "It relates to him wanting to give instruction to the school district,'' said Mr. Handy.

Asked if political turf battles were at the root of the special legislation, Assemblyman Murray replied, "Ask them if it is untrue that they are the lowest scoring in the state. It is getting worse.''

According to Mr. Handy, test scores in reading, mathematics, and science have improved since new programs were instituted during his administration. But, he added, "it takes five years to see any kind of turnaround pattern.''

Mr. Aquil, who is chairman of the district's advisory council, said he is concerned that any progress that the district has made will be jeopardized if the state takes over.

State Help Sought

Mr. Aquil noted that he and other parents had tried for a number of years to get the state education department to intervene in the district. But each time, he said, the department said the evidence did not warrant action.

Once the parents realized they could not rely on outside help, he recalled, "we had to forge a relationship'' with district officials.

The state department "has shown no history of any concern for our children,'' Mr. Aquil said. "What is it about this bill that would give them some concern now?''

State education officials did not return calls to Education Week.

Compton officials say they are more inclined to support a bill, also awaiting the Governor's signature, that would lend state assistance to low-achieving schools.

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