Los Angeles (April 2008) – As the nation recalled the famous “A Nation at Risk” report released 25 years ago in April of 1983, I have a memory of my own. I was driving to a meeting to discuss the state of public education in California. On the radio, the newscaster spoke about “A Nation at Risk,” a newly released federal report full of grim facts about the nation’s public schools. Little did I realize then, that 26 years later many of the same issues would remain on the public agenda.
In the years leading up to “A Nation At Risk,” two California court decisions regarding financing and one Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) consent decree regarding integration had already dramatically impacted schools in Los Angeles. In 1971, Serrano v. Priest equalized and capped funding for all California school districts. In 1978, LAUSD settled the long-running Crawford v. LAUSD lawsuit, by agreeing to establish racial quotas and to establish a bussing program to achieve racial balance in all schools in Los Angeles and San Diego.
That same year, Proposition 13 limited the ability of local governments and districts to use property taxes to fund their schools and the major responsibility for funding local schools passed from local districts to the State legislature. As a result, California school districts found it almost impossible to pass bond and tax measures, and LAUSD, the state’s largest district, was unable to raise funds to accommodate the major waves of immigration to South and South East Los Angeles. Schools became overcrowded, multi-track and multi-lingual. Students spoke more than eighty languages, and few people understood the scale of the financial or facilities issues and the impact of those issues in classrooms. The financial impact on local school sites resulting from these legal decisions and the shrinkage of the tax base for schools was barely noticed by voters and ignored by most public officials.
However, the “Nation at Risk” report awakened interest in the public’s schools, and the “reform” of public education soon became a focus for many of the nation’s major grantmakers and corporate leaders. It was at this time, just as school reform was becoming a major issue, that the Los Angeles Educational Partnership (LAEP) was formed. As an early member of a national network of local urban education groups known as the Public Education Fund, we served as an intermediary organization working between the private sector and local public schools. Independent, but acting as a collaborator and constructive critic, LAEP sought to strengthen education by investing in promising practices and engaging the larger community.
Funding for these early efforts was provided by the Ford Foundation, which fostered interest in and additional funding for our organization by other major Eastern foundations in Los Angeles education. The effort also attracted important investments from the Ahmanson, Arco, Stuart and California Community Foundations as well as other California philanthropies. Arco, Bank of America, GTE, Pacific Bell and other major corporations stepped up to support the effort as well.
Together, we strategized, piloted new programs, hosted conferences, gave grants to teachers and schools, shared information, conducted research and reported about lessons learned on a regular basis. We designed “Principal for a Day” to introduce many corporate leaders to the reality of Los Angeles’ underfunded, overcrowded, multilingual, multi-track schools.Today, that is replicated across the country.
Through the years, Los Angeles Education Partnership sought to strengthen teacher quality, create better schools and foster healthier school communities. Our work has provided training, support and encouragement for teachers, engaged parents in their children’s schools; engage community health and social services on over 20 LAUSD school sites, and supported the early use of technology to enhance education. We led the design of the Los Angeles Urban Learning Centers’ Pre-K-12 model, Humanitas small learning communities, the Target Science network, and introduced career academies in Finance, Health, Information & Technology, and Hospitality & Tourism. Most of this has been sustained over the years. We have learned what works and what has lasting value, but still struggle to make major systemic changes.
Today, I am both deeply concerned and cautiously hopeful about education in Los Angeles. There are more voices, more organizations, more collaborations, more lessons learned, and more proven practices in LAUSD and nationwide. There are now state and national standards, attention to dropouts and graduation rates and college preparation and access, early learning opportunities, teacher quality and workforce preparedness programs. And perhaps most importantly, a better awareness of the work remaining to be done.
In spite of the findings of “A Nation at Risk,” and the investment of significant private and public resources and time and talent by so many, too few students are achieving in acceptable numbers. The call to action of “A Nation at Risk” has not been fully realized, and much remains to be done. So, we are pledging another 25 years until everyone gets it right.