By TOM GRAY

Contributing Reporter

Depending on where you look, education in Los Angeles is either an ongoing disaster or the envy of the world.

The city's vast public school system is notorious for its rigid bureaucracy and dismal test scores, while local universities enjoy international reputations for excellence.

The first system drives people to the suburbs and private schools if they have the money. The other draws students from around the world, spending their families' life savings on sky-high tuition to get their shot at an American college education.

The contrast is not always so stark when it comes down to individual cases. There are some excellent public schools along with mediocre (and worse) colleges.

But it does hold true in general that students in L.A.'s public secondary schools score abysmally low on international tests, yet local colleges attract top scientists, academics, researchers and students from all around the world.

In Los Angeles, as in many other big U.S. cities, some of the world's top universities can virtually share the same neighborhoods with some of the most troubled public schools.

Why is this? Answers come from all over the political spectrum, and they don't add up to anything close to a consensus.

Over the years, just about everything but El Ni & #324;o has been blamed for the problems of L.A.'s schools: Unions, bureaucrats, school board politics, incompetent teachers, negligent parents, lazy students, crime, poverty, immigration, white flight, busing, Proposition 13, new math, whole-language reading instruction, bilingual education, and so on. Forget about consensus. The problem always seems to be someone else's fault.

The success of colleges and universities gets a lot less ink except when a local professor wins a Nobel Prize. Faculty members of local universities have won a total of 18 Nobel prizes over the years.

Higher education also isn't under constant analysis by would-be reformers. But certain facts about it stand out and distinguish it from the public schools.

One is its range of choices. Public schools, as a rule, try to teach the same curriculum to everyone who comes through the door (though they provide higher-achieving students a separate track through such means as magnet schools and advanced-placement classes).

Colleges, on the other hand, are enormously diverse, ranging from small religious institutions to huge public universities, from venerable brick-and-mortar campuses to "distance-learning" in which the "campus" exists on the Internet.

Higher education also tends to function with fewer and more flexible rules. It is not governed by the massive educational codes that dictate minute details of running a public school. It is less unionized (even administrators have a union in the Los Angeles Unified School District). Colleges generally don't have to answer to full-time, politically ambitious boards, as the L.A. public secondary schools do.

And colleges have to compete. USC President Steven B. Sample says this is the most important difference between higher education both public and private and public schools.

"American higher education is characterized by really tough and demanding competition," he says. "No one has a monopoly, so the competition is fierce and it has real consequences."

This isn't just a public-private rivalry, though public institutions like UCLA certainly do compete for students, faculty, grants and donations with private ones like Cal Tech and USC.

In addition, public universities compete with each other. Most of them are given considerable autonomy with regard to setting faculty salaries, soliciting private donations and grants, and other matters.

That competitive environment is in stark contrast to the centralized bureaucracies of U.S. public schools and most overseas university systems.

Market forces have made a few inroads into the public secondary schools. California and other states have tried to foster a competitive spirit by allowing a few campuses to become semi-independent "charter schools."

These schools must compete for students because their funding is directly tied to the number of students enrolled.

In addition, the LAUSD is several years into an ambitious program Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or LEARN that's supposed to shift power from district bureaucrats to parents and teachers at individual schools.

On another front, tax-funded voucher programs have been stalled by legal challenges and political opposition, but private scholarship programs in which the poor get money to attend private schools are growing.

Still, some things about LAUSD never seem to change. One still hears the stories from frustrated parents who try to exercise the new power that the district, at least on paper, says they now have. Franny Parrish, the PTA leader at Valley View Elementary in the Hollywood Hills, says the LEARN program didn't seem to make a difference when parents and teachers tried to help choose a new principal. The district rejected several candidates suggested by parents and teachers, refusing to even interview some of the candidates, Parrish said. The parents and teachers finally gave up and let the district decide.

"I have not seen a difference in attitude," she said of the LAUSD. "They're standing on top of our kids' heads, making their salaries, and they love to say in meetings, 'It's all about the children.' "

Samples, a trustee of the LEARN program, said there has been "some real devolution of authority down to the principals' level." But he concedes, "It's awfully tough to make systemic change" in the LAUSD. He sees more hope in working to improve individual schools rather than trying to re-engineer the power structure.

USC now focuses its efforts on five nearby LAUSD schools, where it funds various projects, lends faculty members as guest teachers and sends its students as tutors. "A lot of people want to fix the system," Sample said. "I guess in this school thing I've become more of a grass-roots person."

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