The Daily News of Los Angeles 
December 5, 2001  


BYLINE: Shirley Svorny, Local View 

THE Los Angeles Unified School District is doing a poor job of running a school system. Every classroom teacher, every janitor, every secretary, every school bus driver, every administrator has a story that illustrates the dysfunctional nature of the district

Public school teachers send their children to private schools. The newspapers ply us with stories about misused funds, lost opportunities, social promotion, overcrowded and underperforming schools. What positive outcomes there are reflect local school efforts, despite district oversight. On Thursday, members of the state Board of Education have a chance to take a huge step toward improving our schools. They will decide whether San Fernando Valley voters will get a chance to vote for separate, autonomous school districts. 

It is an opportunity to get Valley schoolchildren out of the massive, poorly managed Los Angeles Unified School District. The two proposed districts would have about 90,000 students each, one covering the northern Valley (Chatsworth to Tujunga), the other its southern portion (Woodland Hills to Toluca Lake). 

The problem is that state law is biased against change; it perversely protects the failing status quo. Before Valley residents are permitted to vote, the new districts must pass a multitude of standards, the mirror image of what state legislators would like to see in a school district. 

In contrast, there is no standard that judges the existing district. It can fail over and over, yet nothing happens. The fact that the existing system fails on every count - fiscal responsibility, academic achievement, facilities management - should not be irrelevant, but it appears to be. 

According to state law, the new Valley school districts must meet conditions for socioeconomic, racial and ethnic diversity, geographic compactness, and conformity with existing community identities. While these may be important concerns (and they have been met), they show how far the legislative focus has shifted from the overriding objective - improving educational opportunities for the children of Los Angeles. 

Other criteria perversely protect the existing district. The Los Angeles Unified School District has been negligent in building new schools. This negligence has resulted in a lack of classroom space, and may be the justification the state board uses to deny the vote on breaking out the new Valley districts. By being inefficient and slow to meet the needs of its students, the district administration maintains its control over education in Los Angeles. Is it too far-fetched to believe that the district does this on purpose? Sets up poison pills that preclude challenges to its power? Maybe it is more realistic to say that the district bears no costs of such mismanagement, so it continues. 

The current breakaway effort has been brought forward by a group of concerned Valley residents, a group called Finally Restoring Excellence in Education. To their credit, those involved with the FREE effort see the possibilities in Los Angeles. On the other hand, it is not an exaggeration to say that district officials, who are paid to represent students, fail to do so. 

If members of the state Board of Education reject the FREE proposal, the cost to the Valley community is tremendous. We bear the cost every year in lost kids and lost opportunities. If the current proposal is not allowed to go before the voters, Valley residents face a dramatically less perfect alternative for years to come. 

Shirley Svorny is a professor of economics at California State University, Northridge.