NOW THAT SUMMER VACATION HAS BEGUN, YOU can bet students from Jefferson High in South-Central L.A. are pleased to be back home. No more prolonged stints of sitting on counters or standing in classrooms without enough chairs. No more humiliating "service classes" -- doing menial work for teachers who show up (and not being able to take necessary academic classes because so many teachers do not). And while we're on humiliation, no more having to crowd into too few bathrooms regularly devoid of soap, toilet-seat covers and, yes, toilet paper.
But Jefferson isn't much of an exception when it comes to California's poorer public schools. Four years after Gray Davis made education his "first, second and third priorities," many of our schools remain in an appalling and embarrassing state. From now until November, Davis is going to spend millions trying to convince us that if he's beaten by Bill Simon, the world will come to an end and the apocalypse will first consume our schools.
I've got no confidence in Simon to do anything -- the man has a hard enough time just reading his stump script. But, when it comes to schools, he could hardly do worse than our current governor. Two years ago the ACLU initiated a class-action lawsuit on behalf of poor and minority students against the state for its refusal to provide adequate textbooks and teachers and to repair the decrepit, overheated and undercooled, rat-infested classrooms that too many of our kids must endure.
The suit really stands the beloved political issue of "accountability" back on its feet. It asked the state of California and its governor to be accountable to its schoolchildren, rather than continuing to hold the kids and schools accountable to them. Davis' school reforms have imposed a slew of meaningless and burdensome standardized tests on the schools while the governor publicly gloats over this or that 2 percent fluctuation upward in achievement scores.
But on the moral test of his own administration, the governor simply flunks out. Davis' response to the lawsuit has been to stonewall the issue, prolong the case, run up a gigantic legal tab to the benefit of some of his powerhouse campaign contributors, and allow little Johnny to twist slowly, slowly in the wind.
For anyone who doubts the state of our schools, I recommend a review of a recent Harris survey of California public school teachers, which can be found on the Web at www.publicadvocates.org. Of 6 million public school students in the state, 19 percent attend schools where at least a fifth of the teachers are uncredentialed, 32 percent go to schools without enough textbooks to be taken home for study, and 32 percent find classrooms either uncomfortably hot or cold. A million students deal with closed or non-working bathrooms, and nearly 2 million California students share classrooms with roaches, mice or rats.
Let's be clear. Gray Davis didn't create this situation. California schools began to sink 20 years ago when the same nimrods who now want to chop up L.A. brought us Proposition 13, thinking money is better spent on kitchen remodeling than on public education.
What is Davis' fault is his refusal to remedy this mess. Frankly, the sort of civil rights suit the ACLU is pressing is not intended to ever really get to trial. Rather, it's a pointed invitation to the state to sit down and settle the complaint. Davis could easily find money to at least fix the toilets, install air conditioning, fumigate the classrooms and buy the textbooks. Somehow, the state found $95 million for software it didn't need from the gov's pals over at Oracle.
BUT THE GOVERNOR IS MUCH MORE A putz than a mensch. Instead of working this problem out, the notoriously vindictive Gray Davis actually countersued local school districts, trying to scapegoat them (a strategy thrown out by the judge). Worse, Davis overruled the advice of his own attorney general, who offered to thriftily represent the state, and instead hired his overpaid hack cronies over at O'Melveny & Myers -- a rest home for retired and failed Democrats (from Warren Christopher on down to Kathleen Brown) and a firm that has pumped thousands of bucks over the years into Davis' political campaigns.
Charging $345 an hour for its attorneys and $140 for its paralegals, O'Melveny's crew ran up $6 million in legal fees by the beginning of this year (when Davis' office stopped publicly reporting the scandalous costs of their services). By my calculation, if Davis had spent the $6 million on textbooks alone, he would have reduced the shortage by 50 percent. Some legal experts predict that when this is all over, the state will have spent "tens of millions" of taxpayer funds on these private lawyers to defend itself against the indefensible.
And what have "we the people" gotten for our millions? A classic corporate legal strategy nakedly aimed at dragging out the legal battle until 2006, when Davis will be safely gone from the governor's chair and some other chump can inherit the problem. Indeed, the lead lawyer representing Davis is the noble soul who flacked for Exxon Corp. after it blackened Alaska's coastline in the Valdez disaster.
A brief rush of new stories last fall detailed the delaying and thuggish tactics used by the governor's contract consigliere. A gaggle of young students -- all of them plaintiffs against the state -- were dragged into intimidating depositions with the governor's hired lawyers. Most dramatic was the case of 11-year-old Carlos Ramirez of the Bay Area. The ACLU included him in the case because he had once passed out in a classroom where the temperature had risen above 90 degrees.
Carlos then became one of 13 students who, over a mind-boggling period of 24 days, were further roasted in browbeating depositions by Governor Davis' gentlemen lawyers. Carlos had asked to be excused from this ordeal because his mother had been killed a few weeks earlier in a drive-by shooting. But no dice. Some guy named Michael Rosenthal subjected Carlos to four days of questioning and -- according to the San Francisco Chronicle -- at one point asked the child some 20 questions just about the school-cafeteria milk. When another teenage student witness told attorney Rosenthal of the pestilence in her classroom, he asked sarcastically, "Did the mouse droppings you saw on the floor affect your ability to learn in U.S. history?"
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The student answered, "No." She should have added: "No, sir. Just the way a brain, a heart and a soul apparently didn't affect your ability to become a scumbag attorney." (Memo to Mr. Rosenthal: Please write a protest letter to the editor so I can get another chance to trash you in my reply. Pretty please.)
Davis took some heat over this episode of nauseating gangsterism carried out at extravagant public expense. The Northern California papers -- which tend to pay more attention to Sacramento -- skewered him. The L.A. Times, meanwhile, mildly chided Davis on this issue nine months ago and then briefly mentioned the ACLU suit in a December article but has since, for some reason, decided this issue is no longer newsworthy (even though the now-campaigning Davis blabbers on about education almost daily).
Currently, both sides in the lawsuit are engaged in routine pretrial mediation. But sources familiar with the talks say the Governor's Office remains intransigent. It doesn't have to be that way. Davis has myriad resources and recourses available to him to reach an honorable settlement and even capitalize on it for his own electoral benefit. But it seems his first, second and third priorities are to continue to delay while further enriching the besuited goons over at O'Melveny & Myers.
When the kids come back to school in September, chances are there still won't be enough textbooks to go around. But not to worry. Those curious few who wish to learn more about the inner workings of state government will require no special readings. It'll be enough to look at the rat droppings on the classroom floor to drive home the lesson of -- when it comes to the poor and the powerful -- just who is accountable to whom.