Los Angeles Times
June 25, 1997, Wednesday, Home Edition


BYLINE: SHIRLEY SVORNY, Shirley Svorny is an economics professor at Cal State Northridge 

When people in the San Fernando Valley want to secede from Los Angeles, state Sen. Diane Watson criticizes them for forsaking the inner city. When I pull my kids from the Los Angeles Unified School District and put them in private schools, I am criticized for not supporting the public schools. Let's put the blame where it belongs.

People are moving or seeking to detach their community from the city or turning to private schools because Los Angeles is not doing a good job in meeting the needs of its residents. But rather than place the blame where it belongs--on the public administrators and school district officials and the people who support and reelect them--it is, in some perverse way, shifted to those who have the resources to escape. Tell me, how is it possible for me to improve LAUSD by sending my children to public school? Is there anyone who thinks I'd be a better parent if I sacrificed even a portion of my kids' education to LAUSD? When 40% of the district's teachers have their children in private schools, what else is there to say? I only wish I could pull other children out.

The same lobby that fought hard against giving families options through an educational voucher system wants us to remain "committed" to the system, to give it a chance, to remain part of our communities. Of course, I'd like nothing better. I'd prefer not to spend a substantial share of my income on my children's schooling. I'd prefer my children to have friends in our neighborhood, to be part of our local community.

Labeling secessionists "uncaring" about the inner city or, even worse, "racist," is very clever of those who support the status quo. Dramatic and charged with emotion, those labels shift the blame to those who have actually made efforts to reform the city. After the recent Charter Reform Commission election, in which candidates supported by city employee unions--a group with a strong vested interest in the status quo at all costs--nearly swept the slots, who would blame someone for saying, "OK, the mayor has tried, but the situation is hopeless."

Leaving the city seems an increasingly attractive option. Ventura County is crowded with refugees from the San Fernando Valley.

The proponents of the status quo, state Sens. Watson and Richard G. Polanco included, refuse to acknowledge the severity of the problems that we face and suggest only superficial solutions. Instead of putting the blame for the deterioration of the city's financial and living conditions on city administrators, they blame individuals who have moved or are considering secession for abandoning their neighbors.

But what constructive proposals for change have been made in the face of a declining urban environment? "Working together" and "building bridges" are empty phrases. The real question to ask is, why are these politicians such strong supporters of the status quo? What do they get out of it?

As an economist, I know that large cities do not necessarily have to decline but there is a strong tendency for them to do so. There can only be change if residents are willing to take on the city government, to challenge the public employee unions, to promote radical changes that will shake up incentives and dramatically improve efficiency. It doesn't happen because you build a sports stadium or attract DreamWorks. It happens because streets are clean and free of crime, it happens when city employees' job security is not given priority over the low-cost, efficient provision of city services.

This doesn't appear to be something that is going to happen in Los Angeles. There is no valor in sticking with a sinking ship unless, like the politicians and public employee union representatives who oppose reform, the sinking ship contains your primary source of sustenance.