LOS ANGELES (AP) — When state budget cuts imperiled city schools, a group of parents fought back by enlisting Hollywood stars to spread a message targeting one of their own, Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar.
The satirical video featuring actors Megan Fox and fiancee Brian Austin Green highlights how funding shortfalls have killed jobs for librarians, nurses, translators, janitors and teachers.
While the video was filmed in the affluent hills above Hollywood where Green’s son attends Wonderland Avenue Elementary School, the cuts are more deeply felt at an inner-city school like Markham Middle School.
Both schools have been highlighted as the Los Angeles Unified School District has grappled with $1.5 billion in budget cuts and nearly 3,000 teacher layoffs during the past two years. But comparing the two schools shows a remarkably uneven impact, and just how much depends on factors ranging from income and parent involvement to teacher tenure.
The state’s education funding crisis, now entering its third school year, only promises to widen the breech between the haves and have-nots in the nation’s second-largest school district.
Nestled in leafy, secluded Laurel Canyon, Wonderland is more than just a top school in the city — it’s one of the best in the state. In addition to the video that has been viewed more than one million times, Wonderland second graders were featured on CNN writing to Schwarzenegger to protest budget cuts.
Serving gang-plagued Watts and two of the city’s largest housing projects, Markham is one of the city’s lowest performers with test scores 34 percent below the acceptable mark.
The ACLU sued the school system this spring charging that Markham students weren’t learning from substitutes who replaced laid-off teachers. Schwarzenegger himself held up Markham as an example of how the teacher tenure system backfires because layoffs disproportionately strike younger teachers eager to work in the inner-city.
The two schools have been long divided by more than freeways.
The year before Tim Sullivan became Markham principal two years ago, 142 students were arrested around the 1,500-pupil campus. The assistant principal went to prison for sexually abusing female students.
To keep kids safe on their way to school and maintain Markham free of gang graffiti, Sullivan decided to meet regularly with local gang leaders. “This isn’t the place for the weak and fainthearted,” said the 43-year-old principal.
A more basic problem was finding teachers. Sullivan didn’t get a single inquiry at district job fairs so he recruited recent graduates keen for the challenge at annual salaries averaging $45,000.
When budget cuts rolled around last year, Markham lost half its teaching staff — 35 teachers — because they hadn’t reached tenure. They were replaced by substitutes at a daily salary of $173 — more than a fulltime probationary teacher earns, but without benefits. In some cases, the subs served as little more than babysitters. Several gave all students a C grade because they didn’t have enough schoolwork to grade adequately, according to the ACLU lawsuit.
Another 34 teachers, including 10 long-term subs, got pink slips this year, spurring the ACLU’s successful injunction to halt the layoffs.
“A high moral calling can only last so long before you feel like the butt of a joke,” said English teacher Nicholas Melvoin, who was laid off last year but returned as a long-term substitute.
The layoffs have stripped the curriculum to basics, without electives.
Markham’s plight drew the attention of Schwarzenegger, who used the school as backdrop to announce his support of tenure reform that would allow schools flexibility in layoffs.
Across town, Wonderland Principal Don Wilson’s problems are far different.
A pile of resumes sits on his desk for a job opening next year. Electives are not subject to district funding whims. The school has full-time art, music and gym teachers, plus teaching assistants for each teacher, paid for by parents through the PTA’s fundraising nonprofit, which raises $350,000 a year.
Boosters have paid for elaborate playgrounds, cutting-edge equipment in classrooms, field trips and professional development for teachers.
But Wilson must work to keep that revenue flowing. He spent a recent Saturday night in a tent on the playground to help raise $500 per child in a sleepover fundraiser.
“You become a developer,” Wilson said. “That’s a huge part of what I do here.”
Parents are asked to contribute $700 a year per child and many donate more in cash and other initiatives such as buying mugs embossed with children’s art work.
“Parents really value the public school opportunity because they’re not paying the big tuition bill,” said PTA President Terri Levy as she organized an appreciation event to provide breakfast, lunch and a car wash for each teacher.
Wilson knows he’s fortunate, although he, too, has lost personnel and is down to having a nurse only one day per week at his 550-pupil school.
The principal, who spent much of his career in the sprawling city’s more urban schools, said suburban and inner-city parents want the same for the children. But Wonderland parents possess not only a huge amount of resources, including those to make the slickly produced video opposing cuts, they also have high expectations. That’s the key difference, Wilson said.
“They bring expectations as to what an education should be,” he said. “At other schools, parents and teachers come with a limited vision of high expectations.”
Markham’s Sullivan doesn’t begrudge more affluent schools in the district. He does wish the system was more equitable. “Just give us an even playing field to show what we can really do,” he said.