Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Education Code? What Education Code?

I just ran across
this story
from the LA Times about the Santa Ana school district. Apparently, the administration was pressuring teachers to lie about the number of children on their rosters, and created a phantom classroom in order to comply with the state's rules (and get the state money) for limiting K-3 classrooms to 20 kids or less. In other words, teachers were expected to pretend that certain kids were not in their room, and they were formally enrolled in a class that didn't exist -- except very occasionally, taught by a substitute teacher. The weirdest part of it, to my mind, is that they expected that all the teachers would have no scruples about lying on the books -- I mean, there's a whole lot of people who actually take the virtue of honesty seriously. And, most teachers also appreciate smaller class sizes, so the lie wouldn't even be to their own advantage. I sure notice the difference when I'm subbing K-3 and when I'm subbing 4-8.

The article prints a letter to the principal from one of the teachers. Unfortunately, it is not particularly well-written, and spends a long paragraph griping about how the district treats its teachers, tacking on the issue of simple dishonesty almost as an afterthought. It would be wrong to lie about this, even if the district was absolutely wonderful to its teachers.

But the longer I hang around schools, the more I see that this kind of law-breaking happens all the time. I mean *all* the time. Lots of ink is spilled about this or that educational reform, lots of controversy -- and laws are passed. But in your local school, where the rubber meets the road, nothing at all changes, unless the local district wants it to. And they can get away with it, because it's so hard for individuals to fight. You'd have to round up an entire group of parents or teachers, and have a nasty showdown about it, just to get a school district to follow laws and policies already on the books.

Some folks out there might remember all the hubbub about "social promotion" i.e., the practice of simply passing kids from grade to grade, regardless of their academic performance. Well, in California, a law was passed to end that. It sits there in black-and-white in my school district's Promotion and Retention Policy. If a failing student is not retained, the school district must explain why, and provide an alternative solution to getting the child up to passing level. Note that it is the *refusal* to retain that must be justified. My school district doesn't do that at all. This is what our personal fight was about. They did lots of dancing around, citing irrelevant studies -- and they most certainly did not come up with any alternative to simply passing my daughter on and letting her fail the next grade. The only way to force them to do that was to hire a lawyer and fight for months, during which she'd be halfway through the next grade -- so what would be the point? But it was a blatant violation of the law, and callous disrespect for my daughter and our family.
(I'll restrain my ranting on this issue so close to my heart, but I'm still steamed, obviously.)

But there are lots of examples of blantant disregard for the law on the part of school districts, besides my own experience. Every few years it seems like there's some big flap down in the South over school prayer. Now, as most people know, school prayer has been deemed unconstitutional for decades. It's just another example of how, if no one challenges a local policy, it just goes on as if the Supreme Court had never ruled, in total contempt for the law. It would take a pretty brave soul to challenge school prayer in a small, southern Baptist town, even if one privately disapproved. Seems like it's always some new family that moves in, that ends up doing it.

I've seen several instances of IEP kids (i.e. kids with learning disabilities) go without services, or being given inadequate support -- which is illegal as hell. But unless the parents -- and by that I mean a *group* of parents are willing to organize and raise a ruckus, it goes on. And they need someone who knows the ins and outs of the school bureaucracy to guide them through the process. I found out after our personal fight that I might have gotten better results if I had sent copies of everything to the county Department of Education -- something that had never even occured to me. The school system is very practiced at dealing with disgruntled parents, but for the parents, it's always their first time.

Another thing that weighs against fighting a school, is that any school is a temporary place for any individual child. Around here, elementary schools are K-5, middle schools, 6-8. It's tough to commit yourself to a fight that may last a couple of years, when your child may only be there for that much longer -- and you might decide that it's better for your child to take them out of the school rather than spend time and money battling over the issue. (Only a minority of kids spend all their elementary school years in one district anyway; people are mobile in this country.) While a new school solves the problem for an individual family, it leaves the school unpunished, unrepentant, and continuing to ignore the laws that are supposed to govern it.

So, I wish the teachers of Santa Ana the best of luck. It looks like they've already been through the wringer.