In short order, however, Compton Unified became a sort of Vietnam for state educrats. Although the state balanced the budget, it has yet to solve the twin riddles of crumbling buildings and bottom-feeding test scores. And instead of plaudits, the effort has brought on unending attacks from local critics, who view state administrators as invaders rather than liberators.
Last week, in a Compton school-district auditorium, state officials unveiled an escape hatch, a plan to return power to the local school board as soon as July 1, 2000. In the interim, a team of state-funded outside experts will offer advice ranging from contract management to test preparation. Importantly, the backers include both state education officials and some of those who've agitated against them.
"Things are changing in Compton," said school-board member Cloria Patillo at the locally televised hearing. "Watch in the spring of the year where our academic achievement will go . . . Our students are no longer hanging out at the candy stores."
For others, though, the war against the state continues unabated. Outside the hall, board member Saul E. Lankster led a straggling vigil of seven demonstrators. Into a hand-held mike, he sang the same words over and over: "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around."
Inside, fellow trustee Carol Bradley Jordan accused the state of corruption and racist colonialism - virtually dismissing the notion that anything had ever been wrong in Compton's schools before the state seized control. That's a popular myth in parts of Compton, and a self-serving one for the discredited power structure that used to call the shots. It's also a potential harbinger of things to come.
As one state bureaucrat put it, "My greatest fear is that in two or three years down the road, [the state] determines that the school district can be returned to local control, and then they entirely muck it up again in six months."
Therein lies a dilemma for the California Department of Education. At its core, Bradley Jordan's argument is hard to reject outright. At no other California school district have local elected officials been barred from making decisions for so long, five years and counting. Bradley Jordan asserted that the state would never get away with this in powerful Los Angeles, even though L.A. has some schools that resemble Compton's. "We need some accountability," she said, "and you can't get that if you don't elect your own officials."
Even a state education official speaking off the record recognizes the merit of this logic: "They have a perspective that they have a right to their own district, and they honestly believe the Constitution is being trampled on here."
The issue of local control resonates deeply within Compton, which is mostly Latino, but still controlled by black voters. Many of the black leaders are old enough to have taken part in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and many more helped fight and win a local power struggle with the Anglos who ran Compton before they did.
The state ed department took control of the schools as a condition of a financial bailout, but the Legislature also assigned the task of improving student achievement. And the solution in this arena was never as simple as throwing out the crooks and incompetents. Very few schools have succeeded in raising the test scores of impoverished minority students. And Compton's test scores were the worst, in part, because nearly all of its 31,000 students fell into this category.
For their part, the state-appointed administrators never stuck with an academic rescue plan, nor did they establish scholastic benchmarks to measure progress. The state's failing in this regard was underscored by the familiar ring of last week's hearing, which featured a new plan that sounded a lot like some of the old ones.
The latest strategy was mandated by last year's Assembly Bill 52, which was sponsored by Carl Washington (D-Paramount), who represents part of Compton. The district will once again be evaluated and monitored, this time by a team of state-funded crisis managers under the auspices of the Kern County Office of Education.
There's really no easy exit for state education officials and their boss, state schools chief Delaine Eastin. If she pulls up stakes now, political opponents will forever tar her with the failure of the Compton takeover. Her mixed record in Compton already has become a refrain of challenger Gloria Matta Tuchman in her bid to unseat Eastin in November's election.
And what of the future? The current Compton school-board members give the state pause. For starters, there's Carol Bradley Jordan, the sister of Compton Mayor Omar Bradley, a vigorous opponent of the state administration. Bradley Jordan defended social promotion in her remarks last week and also framed the events in Compton Unified as a struggle for power rather than for student achievement.