Staff Reporter

Contentious politics, a bloated bureaucracy, low test scores, union squabbles it's all part of public schools, Los Angeles style.

Meanwhile, many of the 700,000 students in the L.A. Unified School District are being inadequately prepared to enter the workforce. California schools, once the pride of the nation, have become a national laughing stock.

But this may be the year something is done about it.

A powerful political movement has emerged to reform the education system and driving that movement is the normally fragmented business community, which finally seems to have found an issue that everyone can get behind.

Standing in the way are differing notions about what the most pressing issues are, and how to best address them. Dozens of business groups, government task forces and the school board itself are meeting to discuss the issue, but the problems are so complex and the opinions so diverse that a kind of paralysis has surrounded it.

Gov.-elect Gray Davis said repeatedly during his election campaign that education was his top priority. But he made few concrete proposals to fix the system, beyond things that the Legislature and Gov. Pete Wilson have already implemented. Davis called for a bigger investment in textbooks; Wilson has already approved a plan to spend $1 billion on textbooks over the next four years. Davis called for an end to the practice of letting students advance to a higher grade when they haven't met academic standards; a bill was passed this year to do just that.

Davis' reform agenda apparently will be decided by a task force he created soon after his election. The 13-member group is working on specific proposals that will be introduced to the Legislature during a special session on education in January.

The task force is likely to concentrate on improving teaching, having children read proficiently by age 9, and making schools more accountable. Davis is also pushing for a summer elementary teacher training program.

Closer to home, two ongoing political battles will have a major impact on the future of L.A. schools: the movement to split off the San Fernando Valley from the rest of Los Angeles, and the April election for the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

A group called Finally Restoring Excellence in Education, or FREE, has latched onto the ongoing Valley secession movement with a new plan of its own: In addition to making the Valley a separate city, it wants to split off from the LAUSD. The new district would then in turn be split in two, with about 100,000 students in the northern district and 90,000 in the southern district.

The FREE plan has powerful support: the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, the Valley's most prominent business group. VICA leaders point to a 1993 audit of the LAUSD by Arthur Andersen that found evidence of shoddy management and a bookkeeping system so disorganized that the district isn't even certain how many employees it has on its payroll.

But the powerful teachers union which virtually controls the LAUSD board through both financial support and a potent voter bloc opposes the breakup. Union officials say it would simply add to the bureaucracy and cost more money, creating more back-office positions instead of less.

Meanwhile, Mayor Richard Riordan has waged a controversial campaign against the LAUSD board. Last fall Riordan announced that he was seeking candidates to run against incumbent board members, whom he criticized as lacking the "fire in the belly" to make real reforms.

"If you don't solve the education problem, particularly education of the poor, we're going to have problems in the future," Riordan told the Business Journal. "The economy won't have the workforce you need for the technological age."

Riordan has lashed out at a system that he says protects the jobs of bureaucrats and shuffles sub-par principals to inner-city schools. Last week, he announced his slate of candidates, whom he will back with "whatever they need" including advice and campaign funding. Three are newcomers, though Riordan surprised observers by backing incumbent David Tokofsky, whom he had previously criticized.

Riordan and other business-community reformers repeatedly point to merit pay for teachers and "accountability" meaning rewarding schools that improve their aptitude-test results and changing or sanctioning schools that do not as central to reform efforts.

But again, those ideas will encounter fierce opposition from the teachers union. Its leaders have said they would reject any evaluation based on test scores, although they wouldn't oppose evaluations of performance done by other teachers. The California Teachers Association says it would be unfair to require schools to perform at certain levels on test scores until teachers receive training in the state's new academic standards.

Riordan, though, is confident that reformers and teachers can come to an agreement on ways to improve the schools. Both have a common enemy: the school district bureaucracy, which critics agree is bloated and diverts far too much money from the classroom to the back office.

With school board elections less than six months away, these issues are sure to be aired in early 1999. At the same time, the newly formed Committee for Effective School Governance, a group of 23 business, civic and education leaders, will be drafting a set of principles that candidates for the school board will be asked to abide by. And any candidates who are elected and don't abide by those principles will hear about it, said committee member Virgil Roberts.

"We'll be creating public accountability," he said.

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