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Jewish Journal

What’s the Jewish Stake in LAUSD?

by Eric Roth

February 24, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Helen Burnstein, the former president of the United Teachers of Los Angles, used to argue, "Teachers want what students need." Many Jewish educators and parents feel the same way about Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). "Jews want what LAUSD needs." Educational excellence, higher standards, and more enrichment activities have become the mantras of educational reformers.

But de facto segregation seems to have returned to LAUSD despite court- ordered busing, and the Belmont and South Gate fiscal disasters have done little to alleviate the widespread perception that the opaque complexity of LAUSD's bureaucratic structures are wasteful, counter-productive, and scandalous.

Board of Education members Valerie Fields and David Tokofsky, along with other board members, have been shaking up LAUSD, hiring a new interim superintendent, announcing bold programs and discussing splitting LAUSD into 11 subdistricts.

Amidst the chaos and numerous educational disappointments inside LAUSD, an awkward question has re-emerged. "What's the Jewish stake in LAUSD?"

LAUSD, established in 1855, remains the second largest school district in the nation, serving over 680,000 students and employing approximately 36,521 certificated personnel as regular kindergarten through 12th grade teachers. In addition, the district employs 27,728 non-teaching personnel, totaling more than 64,249 regular employees. The $7.5 billion dollar educational institution also stretches over 708 sq. miles.

"The monster is too big," says Jayne Murphy Shapiro, a candidate for 41st Assembly seat and founder of KIDS SAFE, representing the conventional wisdom of many Jewish residents in the San Fernando Valley. "Smaller is better." Shapiro, a 23 year Valley resident, has made educational reform and breaking LAUSD into smaller, more manageable districts a cornerstone of her candidacy.

But a breakup of LAUSD could be seen as another suburban gesture of noncommitment to Los Angeles inner-city residents. Whether by accident or design, the sharp social and geographical separations seem likely to increase. Educational and social concerns seem to be gaining the upper hand over civic pride in a strong urban school district.

Over the last 40 years, LAUSD has experienced a huge demographic shift. The latest figures show that only 10 percent of LAUSD students are white. Further, approximately 65 percent of students are Hispanic and 20 percent of students do not speak English in their home.

If Los Angeles County has become the "new Ellis Island," then LAUSD has become the major force for introducing immigrants to American society. The focus on a multicultural curriculum and bilingual education, often grounded in racial classifications, might have increased the alienation of some Jewish families, say observers

"People don't understand the classroom situation," sighed a Jewish high school social studies teacher with 14 years experience with LAUSD school in a poor neighborhood. "We've got 15-year-old kids who come here speaking no English from rural Mexico who haven't gone to school in years. Juan might read at the third-grade level by his senior year, but that's up from zero. We've helped Juan -- and yes, he's below the national grade level. Shock, shock."

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