Where's the courage in education reform?

Posted: Sep 04, 2006 12:00 AM

Los Angeles Mayor Antonia Villaraigosa soon will exercise more control over Los Angeles' deeply troubled school system as result of legislation that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to sign.

Similar initiatives in Boston, Chicago and New York City have resulted in some improvement in their school systems. But the real question on the table is why _ given that the future of children is at stake, and hence the future of our country _ do we settle for tepid reform when we need bold and innovative change to make a difference?

Yes, again I am talking about the need for competition in education and for school choice.

Freedom, competition and choice are what have produced the world's most powerful economy. Yet the very factors that have made America great, and have distinguished us from the rest of the world, are prohibited from operating in the education marketplace, where we produce our future citizens and workforce.

Sure, maybe giving the mayor more control and having more accountability will help in Los Angeles. But does anyone really believe that shifting around bureaucrats in a monopoly controlling 746,000 students and 80,000 employees is really going to make a big difference?

And, perhaps more to the point, will anyone claim this is the best possible answer? And, if not, what does it say about America today if we are allowing interests other than the welfare of children dictate how we manage education?

The dropout rate among Latino students in the Los Angeles Unified School District is 60 percent. Among black students it's 57 percent. Average proficiency in English and math is under 30 percent.

By the California Department of Education's own Academic Performance Index, 46 percent of elementary schools score 3 or below out of a possible 10, 72 percent of middle schools score 3 or below, and 66 percent of high schools score 3 or below.

As result of a complaint filed by my organization, CURE, along with the Alliance for School Choice, the California Department of Education is investigating compliance of the LAUSD with the school transfer provisions of No Child Left Behind.

According to NCLB, students in failing schools must be notified and permitted to transfer to another school. We have found that 250,000, about 30 percent, of the students in the LA system are eligible for such transfers, yet notification is not being given and there have only been only slightly more than 500 transfers.

Given the disaster that is taking place, you would think that the priority in the state would be to consider every possible option to find an optimal solution to educating Los Angeles' children.

But this is not the case at all.

The measure to give the mayor more authority wound up being watered down as result of pressure from the unions.

Plus, in the queue for the governor's signature, along with the bill to give the mayor more power, will be another bill passed by the California State legislature that prohibits teachers, textbooks, instructional materials and all school-sponsored activities from "reflecting adversely" on homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals.

This will certainly do wonders for low-income Latino and black students, who can't read, add, subtract and who have a 50 percent likelihood of not graduating.

According to data just released by the Census Bureau, the gap in median income between the top 20 percent in the nation and the bottom 60 percent continues to increase. It's about double what it was 30 years ago.

The rewards for education and the penalty for lack thereof are becoming increasingly pronounced. The hole into which Latino and black kids are falling in the Los Angeles school system, and other school systems in our nation's large cities, is one they're never going to be able to crawl out of.

During the last week we were reminded of the face of poverty in America that Hurricane Katrina brought to the nation's TV screens. There was a supposed outrage. But how can there be outrage that is not accompanied by bold measures?

The path out of poverty is education. To tolerate incremental change of public education in America, knowing full well that large numbers of inner city kids will not be helped, does not shine flattering light on the moral state of the nation.

In the last week, along with the focus on Katrina, there were retrospectives on the 10th anniversary of welfare reform. Courageous and innovative reform of our welfare system in 1996 produced sweeping and historic change, moving millions from government dependence to work. The reform took place in the face of opposition of the guardians of the status quo.

We must address our profound problems in education with similar resolve and boldness. Market based innovation and competition must be allowed to come into play, and we must let parents choose where to send their child to school.

To not allow this to happen, to not even give it a chance, particularly in a nation that is supposed to be free, is a moral outrage.

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