School Choice Where None Exists
Public school choice provisions must be rethought for crowded urban districts like Los Angeles.
Recently, a raw, front-page story in The Los Angeles Times traced the fall and nonrise of one of the city's large, inner-city high schools, my alma mater, John C. Fremont High. The newspaper's account put a human face on the numbing statistics that define school failure. The face conveyed frustration, anger, and confusion.
The state had sent in an educational SWAT team to help Fremont and its school district figure out how to get test scores up. After many months, these advisers returned to see what the school had done to implement a plan of action. They subsequently mouthed what I have come to view as the rhetoric of suspension, or surrender: Some progress has been made, but much more needs to be done.
Pressed by one parent for a more challenging curriculum for her 15-year old son, the head state-appointed adviser earnestly admitted that Fremont might not be the "right school for them." With some effort, Delores Torres was able to get her son Ray into a more academically oriented high school "right for him." But it was in a district outside Los Angeles.
The school choice provisions of the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 strongly imply that schools like Fremont that egregiously fail children should be abandoned. In fact, the U.S. secretary of education has said as much: Beginning this fall, states and districts should begin pulling students in failing schools out of the fog and busing them to better public schools of their choosing.
The validity of this provocative prescription rests on a few assumptions that tend not to hold water in the largest urban school systems.
The No Child Left Behind Act assumes that a student's leap from one sinking school will culminate automatically in a safe landing somewhere else. And many parents of children in inner-city schools believe this. They're so thoroughly agitated over the poor performance of their schools that they have begun to brace themselves and their children for a blind leap to other, supposedly better schools.
Theoretically, such school abandonment should be possible in California. Given that ours is an "open enrollment" state, students are free to matriculate in any school that has extra space. But finding extra space in Los Angeles is more than a theory. Consider our high schools: The Los Angeles Unified School District's 49 regular high schools perennially juggle about 165,000 students (this figure is slated to grow to about 200,000 by 2005) in classrooms designed for 145,000 students. While the typical American high school enrolls far fewer than 2,000 students, the smallest of Los Angeles' regular high schools has more than that number. The district's most needy high schools are about as stuffed with bodies as the holds of ships in the Middle Passage. In fact, 12 of the city's regular high schools enroll more than 4,000 students. At the top of the list, Belmont High enrolls about 5,500 students.
Is there extra space? In total, Los Angeles' high schools reported a maximum of 1,655 open-enrollment slots available for this school year, which amounts to 1 percent of high school enrollment. This means that students from an abandoned high school could not be absorbed into the district's other 48 high schools. Notwithstanding Ray Torres' good fortune, one can only speculate about the capacity and willingness of other districts to accommodate the 500 or more students from the closed school who would require placement outside the Los Angeles Unified School District. The story for students in the district's middle and elementary schools is equally somber.
Simply put, students in failing schools have little choice. Indeed, the typical participants in Los Angeles' massive student-transportation program get bused away from home not because they want to, but because they cannot find seats in their neighborhood schools.
So the order of the day is build, build, build— despite the Sisyphean task that building schools in Los Angeles has proved to be. The more we build, the more that need to be built; and erecting the next school is always tougher than constructing the one just built. The task requires a kind of relentless, narrow focus that may yield the maximum number of new seats, but often with the high price of haste-related problems ready to rear their ugly heads in the near future.
It would help if we changed our way of thinking about facilities. And in this regard, pressure from the No Child Left Behind Act might prompt us to think outside the traditional bureaucratic box. At the very least, Los Angeles should encourage the development of more charter schools, perhaps using available nonschool space, such as in high-rise office buildings or mini-malls.
We could move even further outside the box. Why not offer parents and students in the lowest- performing schools an opportunity to attend new public academic boarding schools on the taxpayers' dime? As boarding schools, these new entities would not need to be built inside the district boundaries, a big plus when finding safe land is next to impossible in the Los Angeles basin. Maybe such schools could be created and run by the Los Angeles County Office of Education or the California Department of Education. For example, the state could build public boarding schools outside Los Angeles and offer entry to students in failing Los Angeles schools (among others).
About 15 years ago, then-Mayor Tom Bradley was politically body-slammed for advancing a similar idea. He backed off in the end, but the children he sought not to "leave behind" lost the chance for a better education. Maybe now is the time to act on Tom Bradley's vision.
Even if such creative strategies took root, however, they would, at best, put only a small dent in the problem. So the bottom line is this: Los Angeles cannot abandon any of its schools. Not a one. Yes, students should have the option of leaving schools that consistently fail. But the numbers make it clear that under current conditions, few students who sorely need a better place to learn will have one to go to.
By default, then, the strategy of abandoning failing schools must be reinterpreted for large, crowded urban districts like Los Angeles. And as the situation at Fremont High makes clear, offering up the standard brand of district or state intervention is not the right reinterpretation. "Reconstitution" is a word that comes to mind. Clean it out; start all over. We don't need the rhetoric of suspension, we need something more drastic: the reform of perpetually failing schools as independent charters, perhaps, to be subject to strict public accountability for clearly defined student outcomes.
But that, in Los Angeles today, would not be reconstitution, it would be revolution.
Randy Ross is the chairman of the Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform in Los Angeles.
Vol. 22, Issue 14, Page 37Published in Print: December 4, 2002, as School Choice Where None Exists