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Educating Congress About Mass Transit

There's nothing better than when a good idea catches on. Especially when the idea concerns Los Angeles and mass transit.
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There's nothing better than when a good idea catches on. Especially when the idea concerns Los Angeles and mass transit. Over the past week the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have written articles praising Mayor Villaraigosa's 30/10 plan to build thirty years of overdue mass transit projects within a decade. The Los Angeles Times is also on board thanks to two forceful pieces by Tim Rutten. In the latest, the columnist notes that "Essentially, the mayor is proposing what federal officials are calling a 'big bang' transit construction program that would simultaneously address both Los Angeles County's grinding congestion problems and its desperate unemployment crisis."

The Mayor's recent back-to-back visits to Washington DC, and a meeting at Metro with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Senator Barbara Boxer have also played an important role in moving forward the inspired plan.

30/10, a job-creating machine which would bring 165,000 construction and 2,500 permanent transportation-related positions to the City, has found powerful allies in Senator Boxer, Secretary LaHood, House Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Peter DeFazio and House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar. The Brooklyn-born Boxer, who grew up riding the sort of mass transit Angelenos are aching for, recognizes that 30/10 is self-help at a time when too many are out of work and construction costs are down 20 percent from where they were before real estate went bust. Boxer and company recognize a win-win for the City and State when they see one.

The smart thinking contained in the mass transit package championed by Move LA has captured the imagination of Congressional leaders from both the Tea Party and the Democratic Party because 30/10 is a nonpartisan opportunity to move beyond the uncivil discourse that has come to characterize Capitol Hill. But 30/10 is also catching on because it's a good governance idea that will work as well for tens of other infrastructure-starved cities. With health care lobbyists descending on Washington like locusts, 30/10 is just what the doctor ordered for a sick and dysfunctional Washington. The transit/jobs plan lets the federal government shine as the facilitator of loans to the City rather than as a lightening rod for the anger of partisans frothing at the mouth about everything from health care to the Second Amendment.

But mass transit and jobs aren't the only challenges this city faces. Public education has long been the elephant in the room and it still doesn't work for too many students. With Metro seemingly moving full steam ahead, it's time to focus as well on the schools.

To get a taste of how LAUSD operates, contrast the possibility inherent in 30/10 with the situation for 1,180 high school students from across the city who attend Palisades Charter High School, a California Distinguished School.

Imagine you are one of those students from South LA and you wake up Monday morning and have no way to get to class. The LAUSD bus that used to pick you up at 6:00 am to get you to Pali by 7:50 am never shows and you don't have bus fare for the 3 different Metro buses you would have to ride to get to school on time.

It's true that LAUSD faces a $640-million budget deficit. But rather than renegotiating what looks like an exorbitant (sole source?) bus contract and letting go of the still-ample fat that doesn't make sense even in the best of financial times, LAUSD has proposed eliminating busing for the committed students from over 100 poor performing school zip codes who head to Pali each weekday morning.

To read this you'd think I hate public education, but nothing could be further from the truth. In several prior blogs I've praised public schools and chastised LA parents with a good public school option for leaving the system. As the parent of three public school kids (albeit not Crenshaw or Dorsey High), silence is simply not an option.

When I learned about the district's plans, I googled "LAUSD," where right at the top of the homepage I read the laughable tagline, "Today's Learners, Tomorrow's Leaders." But no one is laughing about a plan that makes 1,180 of today's learners tomorrow's losers.

During his first term Mayor Villaraigosa made important strides toward transforming LAUSD by backing school board candidates favorable to education and to changing business-as-usual at the district. Unfortunately, a great deal of work remains to be done to change a school district culture that kills well-oiled programs like the LAUSD/Pali partnership. The fact that LAUSD formerly ran Pali and may be seeking to exact revenge on the highly-rated charter and the bused students for making the district look like a poorly-educated dropout is not lost on this blogger.

If I were a flaming radical I'd say that the school board's move against the Pali students is equivalent to educational apartheid. After all, under the 1963 ruling, affirmed in 1982, in Crawford v. Board of Education of Los Angeles, LAUSD has to find ways to integrate its student body. Whether the district likes Pali or not, since the desegregation program's creation Pali has educated 10,000 district students from outside of its West Side catchment area. In a district where 91 percent of the students are of color, one might say that depriving the bused students of the chance to attend largely white and academically rigorous Palisades Charter is unacceptable resegregation.

African American and Latino students at Pali perform significantly better as a group than students of color at Crenshaw, Dorsey, Manual Arts, Los Angeles High and Jefferson High Schools, the schools that many of the Pali students would otherwise attend. These schools are household names, thanks to their reputation as among the worst performing schools in Los Angeles. The Pali difference is measureable. Bused students there are achieving Academic Performance Index (API) scores that are routinely 200-300 points higher than the API scores earned by students at the neighborhood schools. Under the circumstances LAUSD should be encouraged, assisted or forced to sharpen its pencil and take another look at its budget before cutting the buses for students from across the City going the extra miles to attend a school that delivers.

As civic endeavors, 30/10 and schools that educate today's learners to be tomorrow's leaders go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, for too long both transit and education have been held hostage by a governing structure that leaves the mayor at the mercy of a divided and bloated city council and an unhinged school board. The LAUSD Pali spat is just the latest example of a school board that lacks the sense to educate the district's students.

When 30/10 moves forward, the new trains and light rail will help ease LA's crippling traffic as well as help sew together the City's diverse neighborhoods. Maybe someday it won't take students and others an hour and a half to travel by mass transit from south LA to the Palisades. More importantly, maybe soon South LA's schools will be good enough that local students won't need to leave home before sunrise to head to class on the West Side. Until this happens however, LAUSD should honor its mandate by continuing to offer bus service to students going west for the quality education all students deserve.

Congress should give LA the loan it needs to be a light unto the nation on mass transit. LAUSD needs to become a bus ticket, rather than an obstacle, to the future for LA's students. Today's learners will only become tomorrow's leaders if they can get to class.

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