LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.--- Driving home from my daughter's Christmas pageant at school, which of course could not mention what Christmas is, I asked her when school would re-open after the new year.
''February 14,'' she said. I laughed. After all, she's only in the second grade.
''Fiona,'' I said, ''school starts again the first week in January. You don't get two months off in the middle of the year.''
''Valentine's Day,'' she said. ''February 14.'' She was right.
A system called ''90-30'' is now in effect in all Los Angeles public schools. Ninety school days on, 30 days off. Which 90 and which 30 are a matter of chance. Among the missing is the old-fashioned concept of classmates -- the person sitting next to you can change with the seasons.
The idea is to use every seat every weekday of the year. In other words, the idea is to save the costs of building new schools in a district with a $4 billion budget that takes in 15,000 more students each year. The math is complicated, but they say 90-30 effectively increases school seating by between 50 percent and 67 percent.
What it does for education is debatable. But let there be no doubt that the Los Angeles Unified School District schools are providing seating for 180 days a year -- the absolute minimum under law to be called a school. One hundred and seventy-nine days of seating is called a building.
Actually it was tough for them to give Fiona that last day, the 180th. Valentine's Day was Friday, and today is a holiday, Presidents' Day. So Fiona and her classmates, after 57 days at home, went to school for one day and then were back home for three more days off.
This is the system now in effect at every one of the 631 schools (kindergarten through 12th grade) in the city. It is designed for fairness, because schools in East Los Angeles went to the 90-30 system in 1978. East LA is a euphemism for ''Hispanic.''
Large families, and more of them each year, mean overcrowded schools in that part of the city. There are 130 overcrowded schools where the students are divided into three groups with different months off.
To be fair, the unified district decided that all schools, crowded or not, should go on 90-30. So hundreds of public schools stood empty as stones through January and half of February. Private and parochial schools, serving a steady 15 percent of the city's 740,000 school children, operate on the same schedule as the rest of the United States -- off in June, back in September.
Without 90-30, Los Angeles would have to build a dozen new schools each year, according to city officials. They don't want to do that, ''they'' being elected city officials, the state legislature and Gov. Pete Wilson, who believe taxpayers would rebel at the costs -- and local evidence going back to the Proposition 13 tax revolt of 1978 indicates they may be right about that.
I never went to the second grade myself and went a half-day to the third grade. That had to do with the problems of not enough gasoline for buses and overcrowded schools at the end of World War II. Those were temporary measures, and soon enough I was a full-time student at P.S. 11 in Jersey City, New Jersey. What is happening in California is different because it is permanent.
The Golden State is, more or less, just giving up. The state expects 2.2 million more students by the year 2000, but it is almost impossible to pass bond issues to build new schools anywhere in the state because a two-thirds vote is now necessary instead of the simple majority of the old days. Teachers' salaries, which have increased 90 percent in eight years, have been traded off for class size and equipment, producing teacher-student ratios as high as 42-to-1 and, sometimes, zero books for children -- and now forced furloughs dTC and pay cuts for those same teachers (of only 3 percent) and other employees.
And the state has tied itself up with ridiculous laws mandating expensive bilingual education, particularly for students with Spanish-speaking parents. Whatever that is meant to accomplish, it segregates Hispanic children because the Anglos and other children are in English-only classes.
''It's as if the whole center of the school district is coming down around us,'' said Robert Weintraub, who has been a member of '' the unified board for 12 years. ''At this point, we're managing the agony and that's about it.''
That is about it. I hope the board is keeping good records, because they will be helpful in 20 years or so when they appoint a blue-ribbon panel to figure out why California lost the marvelous edge it used to have.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.