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What Happened to California Schools?

There was a time when public schools in California were the envy of the nation (Golden Dreams: California In An Age of Abundance (Oxford University Press, 2009).  I experienced that Eden for a short while at the beginning of my 28-year teaching career in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1964. But it was not to last ("My Dark California Dream," The New York Times, Oct. 25).  I'm not an historian, but because I witnessed the slow but dramatic process as a classroom teacher I'd like to present my reasons.

To begin, it's important to remember that public schools are the most sensitive barometer of change in the communities where they are located. That's because by law, they must enroll all who show up at their doors regardless of aptitude or motivation to learn. Although the LAUSD, the nation's second largest, always had its share of underperforming schools, they were limited to sections of the city where low-income families lived.  But for the most part, the district managed to do a good job educating the young.  

In the late 1970s, Third World immigration began. I remember taking roll in my English classes and stumbling over the correct pronunciation of students' names. Their lack of command of English meant that successful lesson plans in the past had to be scrapped and new ones prepared for each of my five classes. Then in 1978, Proposition 13 passed. The effects on the classroom at first seemed minimal.  Instead of daily janitorial service, rooms were swept and trash emptied only twice a week. Groundskeepers were let go, and maintenance was performed on an emergency basis only. Although the ceiling tiles in my bungalow were stained by water leaks, they were never replaced.  

But all these things were tolerable.  What was not was the lack of support for teachers who were trying to meet the special needs and interests of students newly arrived from other countries. This situation was exacerbated by the growth in class size precisely at a time when small classes were indispensable. The teachers' union, UTLA, could do little to improve matters because there was no money available.

As conditions deteriorated, white and native-born parents began to pull their children out and enroll them in private and religious schools. Los Angeles soon became the principal port of entry for immigrant families.  It was only a question of time before teacher morale sagged.  I know several teachers who were so burned out that they chose early retirement even though it meant taking a severe cut on their pensions, which like today are back-end loaded.

All of these things gave impetus to the parental choice movement.  It was not xenophobia or racism that drove parents to seek other schools.  They genuinely felt guilty doing so.  But they understandably put their own children's education first.  I can't blame them. By the time I retired in 1992, my high school, which was always considered one of the best in the state, was unrecognizable, both in its student population and in its physical plant.  I think what I experienced was not that different from what other districts in California underwent.   

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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