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Equation for Equality

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In 1986, Ron Rodriguez was hired to teach elementary school in East Los Angeles. His credentials: knowledge of Spanish, a bachelor's degree in political science, and a passing score on a state basic-skills test for teachers.

Rodriguez knew nothing about how children learn and nothing about effective teaching strategies. All he had was a powerful conviction that poor Latino students deserved to have teachers who understood and believed in them.

Fingerprinted one day and given a classroom the next, Rodriguez stumbled along. All his tough-guy self-confidence eroded in a room full of children who refused to listen to him. And he knew he wasn't alone: To keep up with exploding enrollments in the poorest, most densely populated parts of the city, the district had hired hundreds of instant teachers just like him.

Instead of bowing to the realities of an urban system, Rodriguez decided to do something. He sued the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District over the inequities between rich and poor schools. And he won.

Teaching disadvantaged children seemed a natural step for Rodriguez, a first-generation Mexican-American and East Los Angeles political activist. He had protested the war in Vietnam during college in the mid-1960's and had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the Chicano movement. Later, he worked as a community organizer, taught Chicano studies at a community college, and counseled gang members for the city of Los Angeles.

What drives him as an educator, he says, are the memories of his own 12 years of schooling in Los Angeles. He never had a Mexican-American teacher. He was chastised for speaking Spanish in class. He felt inadequately prepared for college-level work. And everywhere the prevailing view of people like him was negative.

"The Mexicans we had were either under a cactus, asleep, or losing wars," says Rodriguez, 48, a slim man with a graying beard. "We were held in such low esteem."

Despite the discrimination he felt, Rodriguez made it through college thanks to the strong backing of his parents and his own determination to make sense of the social tumult of the 60's. His father taught English to adults, and his mother was a homemaker. Both were active in standing up for Mexican-Americans' rights.

Rodriguez wants his students at Sunrise Elementary School, in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, to have a far better education than he had. About half the children come from families who illegally entered the United States. Unlike his own teachers, Rodriguez is intimately familiar with the children's stories. He knows about the helicopters that chased them across the fields. He knows that one tiny boy is from an indigenous Mexican tribe; he even knows the name of the language the youngster speaks at home.

"Their parents are valiant people," he says of his students. "They are trying to better the lives of their children. You and I would do the same thing."

It was as a parent that Rodriguez became aware of what he calls the injustices of the school system. In 1982, he marched alongside parents who staged a strike to protest the use of a year-round schedule at his son's school, Gate Street Elementary. That was when he met public-interest lawyers eager to take on the district.

Later, he watched in frustration as the two youngest of his four children were bused out of their neighborhood, one to attend a science magnet school near Santa Monica where educational standards were clearly higher.

"I want to bring what he got to the East Side," Rodriguez says. "Who gets the least experienced teachers? It's no accident they're in underpowered communities where the minorities are. These kids are the cannon fodder of the system."

The lawsuit that Rodriguez lent his name to in his first year of teaching is now changing the way the nation's second-largest school system does business.

Rodriguez v. Los Angeles Unified School District charged that the district shortchanged poor and minority students in East and South Central Los Angeles by allocating less money to their schools.

These students' teachers, the lawsuit contended, had less experience and were more likely to be unlicensed or substitutes than teachers who taught in wealthier parts of the district. And the schools attended by poor and minority students, it charged, were overcrowded and dilapidated, with poorly equipped libraries. They also were more likely to be on unpopular year-round calendars to cope with the overflow of students.

While dozens of states have been sued for disparities in funding between school districts, Rodriguez is the first major lawsuit to tackle inequities within a single district. In the next three years, Los Angeles Unified must take on the daunting task of equalizing spending among its 564 schools, primarily by balancing teaching experience.

The case isn't likely to be the last of its type. Los Angeles's problems are far from unique, and advocates concerned about the state of urban education are increasingly focusing on disparities in resources within school districts.

In many cities, the most difficult children to educate are routinely taught by the least experienced teachers. In their schools, turnover is high, seasoned replacements are hard to find, and teachers who earn enough seniority transfer out. School boards concerned about the problem have few tools at their disposal; some have offered "combat pay" to teachers willing to spend time in inner-city schools, but few have found a systematic way to fairly allocate teaching talent across all schools in the district.

"To have inexperienced, beginning teachers--and emergency credentialed and substitute teachers--in inner-city schools in disproportionate numbers is a severe liability. The facts demand that there be a remedy," says Peter D. Roos, the co-director of Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy, one of the groups that brought the Los Angeles suit. "This lawsuit should serve as a wake-up call for folks."

In Los Angeles, the solution boils down to dollars.

Like most school systems, Los Angeles Unified allocates its general-purpose resources to schools based on a formula. For every 1,000 students, for example, each school gets a principal, an office manager, and 30 teachers.

That means the district spends more money on schools that have more experienced teachers because their salaries are higher. Smaller schools also are more expensive to operate, per student, because administrative costs are spread among fewer children.

To settle the lawsuit, the board of education voted in 1992 to allocate money to its elementary, middle, and high schools on a per-pupil basis by the 1997-98 school year. For the first time, schools will have to learn to live within a set budget. If they have too many highly paid teachers, they'll have to bring down personnel costs by filling vacancies with cheaper teachers. And if they have relatively green staffs, they'll find themselves with extra money to hire experienced teachers or to train their faculties.

Only basic state funding is involved. Categorical money--for such special purposes as bilingual and special education and desegregation--won't be equalized. The consent decree allows schools to continue to recruit and hire sought-after bilingual teachers, regardless of their salaries, and protects schools from having to take teachers they don't want.

The district will have to accomplish this balancing act with one hand tied behind its back. At the insistence of the teachers' union, there can be no mandatory transfers of the 26,500 teachers to help equalize spending.

This fall, schools spending more than the districtwide average will have to make plans to begin cutting. In three years, 90 percent of the schools must have equalized their spending to within $100 per pupil of the districtwide average.

If they haven't, the district will be hauled back into court.

Allan Odden, the director of the Finance Center for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education in Madison, Wis., believes the new method of distributing money to schools is a more significant aspect of the case than the focus on equalizing teacher experience. "The district, rather than doling out resources, will dole out dollars per child," he says. "That's the way it should be done. That's a piece of real school-based management--to let the schools decide how to manage their own resources."

As the legal machinery ground up the Rodriguez case, it spit out an equation: Years of teaching equals quality. The subtleties of good teaching, of course, are too complex to fit neatly into such a formula. But because lawsuits require objective measures, teachers' salaries--which increase with time in the classroom and additional coursework--are now a proxy for their expertise.

The theory is that schools with many experienced teachers have an advantage over schools with newer teachers. The trouble is, almost no one believes experience alone is a reliable gauge of teaching talent. Even the leaders of United Teachers of Los Angeles don't buy that reasoning, though they would strongly resist paying teachers on the basis of demonstrated ability and not years of experience.

Day Higuchi, a vice president of the union, can see a time coming when the issue of teacher compensation will have to be revisited.

"If things like Rodriguez become law," he says, "then we'd better figure out some way to make a strong correlation between salary and the capacity that a teacher has."

Given the uncertain link between experience and competence, many principals and teachers fear that the Rodriguez case could turn into a painful, complicated exercise in shifting resources that won't do much to improve inner-city schools.

The teachers' union, in particular, worries that the district will press to be allowed to transfer teachers involuntarily if it finds gradual measures to equalize expenditures don't work. The best way to avoid that, says Superintendent Sydney A. Thompson, is for schools to start looking at their expenses immediately so that the district can comply with the consent decree. "My message to principals is: Do not put this off," Thompson says.

The lawyers from the six legal-aid foundations that filed the lawsuit disagree that the consent decree will do little to improve schools. They argue forcefully that the millions of dollars at stake for underfunded schools are worth the effort to balance the distribution of veteran teachers districtwide. Experience, they insist, does matter.

"There is a difference between a 10-to-20-year teacher on the West Side and a one-to-five-year teacher in the inner-city schools," says Lew Hollman, a senior lawyer with San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services.

Hollman says the Rodriguez decision is just the beginning. "I don't think any of us saw this as the answer to education issues in the poverty community. It's an issue of basic fairness."

For many years, the black and Latino residents of South Central and East Los Angeles have felt cheated out of resources that they believe flow easily to white children in affluent western parts of the city and of the San Fernando Valley. Their children have borne the brunt of busing to ease overcrowding, year-round schedules, and campuses jam-packed with as many as 4,000 students.

Despite the prevailing feeling that inner-city schools were getting less than their fair share of resources, when the district finally succeeded in breaking down what it was spending on each school, the picture that emerged was complicated.

It turned out that not every school on the West Side or in the San Fernando Valley was wealthy, and not every school in the central city or East Los Angeles was poor. What mattered more than location, in many cases, was how long teachers had been at a particular school.

"Some schools in the central city are going to have to cut, and some suburban schools won't have to," observes Richard K. Mason, the special counsel to the superintendent. In order to settle the case, he says, the board of education decided to "let the chips fall where they may."

District administrators argue that the disparity in funding schools is due to wide variations in school size, not to their location or the student population served. It simply costs more to run small schools. Newer schools built in the suburbs tend to have fewer students, and more acreage, than do overcrowded inner-city schools on small patches of land. The elementary school with the highest per-pupil spending in the district, for example, has 185 students, while the lowest-spending has 1,467.

Many Los Angeles educators, Mason notes, have criticized district officials for refusing to fight the case. But after spending a quarter-century locked in a bitter battle over desegregation, few board members had the stomach to go to court. "As I say to principals," Mason explains, "those who have observed the last 25 years might have an inkling why we would settle."

Knee-high weeds grow amid the landscaping at John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley. The grass is a brittle, dry brown. Faded blue lockers running along the open-air breezeways have a scrubbed look from repeated attempts to remove graffiti. The teachers' lounge is full of chairs donated by the Air Force.

It's late morning and already hot; later in the day, the temperature at this San Fernando Valley school will top 100 degrees. Classrooms aren't air-conditioned.

Francis Poly, which opened in 1957, last year ranked 45th in spending out of the 53 senior high schools in the district. About a third of its 105 teachers--many of whom had taught at the school since it opened--have retired in the past five years and been replaced with less-senior people. The staff includes seven teachers with emergency credentials and some long-term substitutes in positions that can't be filled with licensed teachers.

Carolyn R. Burch, the principal, complains that Francis Poly doesn't get any compensatory money, although many of its 2,560 10th- through 12th-graders come from low-income households. Eighty percent are Latino.

And there's only enough money for one gardener, who tends to 48 acres alone.

"We have the resources to fund a very basic program," Burch says, "and that's it."

In an abandoned metal shop full of unused equipment that now serves as one of the school's science classrooms, Nikki Vaughan is helping her students set up a seismograph on loan from a local university.

The marine biology and earth-science teacher says he 10 percent pay cut district employees were forced to accept last year took a toll on the faculty.

"We lost great quantities of good folk out of science and math--four in one year," she laments. "We have three positions with long-term subs, paid at the sub rate. We have one science position filled by someone who is not credentialed in science."

Vaughan says she's generally proud of the staff, including many of the newer members. But some veterans, she admits, retired in spirit a long time ago. "They haven't updated their lessons," she says."According to Rodriguez, they're better than anybody."

Based on the school's 1993-94 ranking, Francis Poly would have received an extra $204,640 under the Rodriguez consent decree to make up for its relatively low spending. But Burch, mindful of the district's continuing budget problems, doesn't see the case as a windfall.

"I don't think we're going to get any extra money," she says. If she did, Burch would pour it into hiring people: counselors, nurses, tutors. She'd also like to add technology and renovate the school's run-down buildings.

Mostly, she thinks the case will tie principals' hands. Already, they have to racially balance their staffs and scramble to find bilingual teachers and candidates who are properly licensed in the subject they will teach.

"You like to have the leeway to find the most appropriate person for your program--based on their qualifications, not their salary," she explains. "That's a very different factor that schools are not used to dealing with."

The best way for schools to reduce costs, district administrators say, is through attrition. Vacancies in high-spending schools, according to district policy, now must be filled with the cheapest--and thus the least experienced--teachers available. They start at about $24,000 a year. Schools spending under the districtwide average can hire experienced teachers, who are paid up to $47,000--if the district can find them.

Like many urban school systems, Los Angeles Unified can't begin to fill all of its teaching positions with fully qualified applicants. Last fall, the district hired 1,778 teachers--932 of whom had no licenses and minimal classroom experience. Eventually, most become licensed through a program run by the district.

Recognizing the problems with the district's teaching pool, the consent decree calls for low-spending schools to use their extra money to improve their staffs. The money could be used to reduce student-teacher ratios, provide additional classroom aides, or pay for mentor teachers to work with inexperienced instructors. The teachers' union would like to see schools with large numbers of experienced teachers become formal induction sites for novice teachers.

In the meantime, most of the district's attention will be focused on helping its highest-spending schools reduce their costs. Last year, 313 schools spent more than the districtwide average; 125 spent more than $100 per pupil more than the average. Small schools that can't reduce their spending are to receive subsidies that would enable them to pay for principals and office managers, and financial managers and head counselors in the high schools. But the details of the subsidies have yet to be worked out.

Leonard Fuller, a consultant hired to help manage the transition to a per-pupil budgeting system, says he's optimistic that the focus on financial calculations can be shifted back to classrooms.

The consent decree's requirement that money be distributed to schools on a per-pupil basis meshes well with the district's own reform plans, which call for schools to take control of their own budgets. And there are educationally sound ways--such as creating schools-within-schools--to deal with the intimidating size of some schools.

Still, the managerial problems posed by the case are daunting. Los Angeles Unified is working on an integrated financial system that will offer better data to schools. But in the meantime, paper-pushers had to stand on their heads just to figure out how much individual schools spent last year.

Enhancing the quality of education in low-spending schools, Fuller says, "is going to take effort. I am here to tell you that it is a massive undertaking."

But it's well worth the effort, the Los Angeles native believes. "I graduated from this district 30 years ago, and I did see disparities," he says quietly. "They were so clear, attending Jefferson High School [in South Central] and coming out here to the Valley. They had better libraries and whatever."

The consent decree is, of course, least popular with principals and teachers in relatively high-spending schools.

Van Gogh Elementary School, in affluent Granada Hills, last year ranked 69th in per-pupil spending out of 433 elementary schools. It serves a diverse mix of students: Half are white, 20 percent are Asian, and 17 percent are Hispanic.

The only Los Angeles school to be displaced by the January earthquake, Van Gogh is now housed in portable classrooms on the lush green campus of nearby Frost Junior High School. Parents driving expensive cars drop their children off for school beneath a canopy of tall, feathery pine trees.

Despite Van Gogh's ranking, Maureen Diekmann, the principal, argues that her 350-student school is hardly wealthy.

"[The plaintiffs] made the assumption that schools like this--that look really nice and tend to be newer--were better schools, period," she says. "What they didn't know is we have no money to buy anything. We don't have rooms full of instructional materials. My library and a library on the East Side you can't compare, because of the categorical money."

Agrees resource teacher Lydia Obrecht: "It's common knowledge to teachers that inner-city schools have more money to spend. Here, we have to raise money to get things. When you go to inner-city schools, you see wonderful computer labs, and we're struggling to get one."

A group of parents who shared that view, in fact, intervened in the lawsuit to argue that the consent decree was unfair because it didn't take into account the federal compensatory-education money and state desegregation funds that poor schools receive. The judge in the case rejected their argument, as did an appeals court.

There's nothing that Van Gogh, with only 13 teachers, can do to reduce its expenses, Diekmann says. In the past few years, a couple of the school's senior teachers have retired. But generally, she points out, teachers tend to stay put, especially when they've secured a job in a suburb close to home.

"Teachers aren't big movers. When I taught in the mid-Wilshire area for eight years--at a school that didn't have a reputation as a good school--there were teachers who had been there 30 years," Diekmann says. "They just don't move."

When teachers do move, the flow is away from inner-city schools to the suburbs. By union contract, teachers who spend eight years in a hard-to-staff school have special rights to transfer to schools of their choosing. Last year, the district placed 175 such teachers. The problem now is that many will want to move to schools that already have plenty of experienced instructors.

Diekmann knows far more about the Rodriguez case than most Los Angeles principals, who are just beginning to grapple with its implications. She worked in the district's legal office when the case was being researched, touring elementary schools with legal-aid lawyers pressing the case.

The plaintiffs were just as concerned with the conditions of many Los Angeles schools as they were with the staffs in them. Lawyers measured playground space, rattled the handles on leaking drinking fountains, and counted the number of children jammed into lunch areas, hoping to make a case for building new schools.

That was before the district settled a teaching contract that promised raises of 24 percent over three years, though, and before California plunged into a recession. In the past four years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has cut more than $1 billion out of its $4 billion operating budget.

"They were looking for money," Diekmann says, "and there isn't any."

School-construction money is controlled by the state of California, so there wasn't much the consent decree could do about overcrowded schools. It requires the district to employ an adequate number of people to apply for construction money and calls for an annual report describing the need for school construction and the progress being made. The agreement also sets "goals," not strict limits, for the size of any schools that might be built.

The differences among schools also have become less stark over time. The demographics of the school district, whose enrollment has climbed from 560,000 to 640,000 students in the past eight years, have changed markedly. The proportion of Latino students, for example, has increased from 52 percent in 1986 to 66 percent today. Many are attending schools in the San Fernando Valley, once considered a white enclave. And there are now 200 schools on year-round calendars, up from 85 when the lawsuit was filed.

If the inequities among schools are no longer as glaring, the plaintiffs' lawyers argue, they are still worth remedying.

"Equalization," asserts Carol Smith, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, "is the line that must be drawn."

Ron Rodriguez could never have foreseen it, but since joining the staff at Sunrise Elementary School, he's become a science nut. He's determined that his Spanish-speaking students not get left further behind in an increasingly complex world. Gone are the days, he knows, when they could get union-wage jobs in factories and afford to buy homes.

Largely on his own, working alongside his students, Rodriguez began doing hands-on science experiments that whetted his appetite for further knowledge. Now, he is a leader in helping his colleagues understand California's science curriculum framework.

Rodriguez looks around his institutional-beige classroom at the groups of 5th graders working on a mathematics lesson with three-sided mirrors. Cardboard boxes full of silkworms are stacked along counter tops. Just outside, there's a papier-mƒch‚ volcano that waits to be painted.

"Unless these kids get a high-tech education, all is lost," he says forcefully. "Right now, half of these kids don't have a future of economic security within this society."

Sunrise Elementary, which opened in 1984, is a hodgepodge of beige bungalows that once housed an alternative high school. It's one of the lowest-spending elementary schools in the district--333rd out of 433 last year--because its staff is so new. When Rodriguez started teaching, he recalls, fully half the staff had emergency credentials.

The school, on a dry patch of ground pressed up against the Pomona Freeway in an established Mexican-American neighborhood, has advantages that are precious in inner-city Los Angeles: a grassy play space for its 600 students and an auditorium in the old gym. There's a science lab in the former locker rooms--thanks to grant proposals that Rodriguez wrote.

Despite all his hard work, the teacher knows that his efforts on behalf of the children are just a first step. He admits that the argument against his lawsuit--that veteran teachers aren't automatically better--might have some merit. Novices with little classroom experience are often highly motivated, he notes.

"But that doesn't necessarily make you a better teacher," Rodriguez argues from his own experience as an ill-equipped beginner. "You're still unprepared to do what you have to do."

He's disappointed that so little could be done about building new schools in the city. He wishes that far more than 16 percent of the teaching force was Latino. And he knows that his students' families will never be able to provide them with the advantages more affluent students enjoy. "If they pay the rent and put food on the table," he explains, "they feel they've done their duty."

It's unlikely, though, that Ron Rodriguez will ever give up the struggle.

"This is not the end," he vows. "There is still not liberty and justice for all for every child in this district."

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