Diversity Approaches Its Logical End

RICHARD REEVES

December 23, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- In this great city, if a child enters public school illiterate, as most 5-year-olds do, teachers are required to teach it to read first in the language of the home. If the child's parents speak Spanish or Armenian or Urdu -- all common around here -- teachers by law must teach the child to read in that language rather than in English.

Such insanities are a way of life here, where diversity is being taken to its logical end, chaos -- and parents who can afford it are leaving town or breaking down the doors of private schools. The latest outrage, last week, was a vote by the Board of Education, without any prior notice, to cut the school year down to 163 days of instruction -- cutting away eight more days of schooling.

The excitement of having a child in Los Angeles public schools is waking up each morning and wondering if they will be open -- and if they are, what's on the multicultural menu today? The next exciting round for us will begin February 22, when our third-grader is scheduled to return to class and the teachers are scheduled to strike.

Perhaps I should explain. My kid gets eight weeks off for Christmas: the Los Angeles Unified School District is on an all-year-round schedule. Schools in East Los Angeles -- read Mexican-American -- are greatly overcrowded, and the powers that be can pack more children in with more and shorter semesters. And, to be multiculturally fair, all the others make believe their schools are overcrowded, too. As for the strike, the teachers, most of them very good, are frustrated by a series of annual cuts in pay.

Being a public-school parent in Los Angeles is also lonely. Except for the other mothers and fathers at my daughter's school, we don't really know anybody else who has children in public schools. Which means, of course, that we don't know anyone who gives a damn about what happens to the public schools or who is willing or able to have a conversation about public schools.

That is, until the past couple of weeks. At Christmas parties, I have walked into three conversations about whether or not Bill and Hillary Clinton should put their daughter, Chelsea, into a public school when they move from Little Rock to Washington next month.

The consensus, articulated by a prominent attorney who could not, on pain of death, give you directions to the public school nearest his home, sounded as multicultural as stories of the Aztecs: ''They have to send her to public school -- sacrifice her for the country.''

All men are created equal, we say, but girls and boys will not be educated equally -- not here, anyway. Los Angeles has a two-tier educational system, with the classes as separated as any devised by the minds of European princes or American slave-masters. And everyone knows it. Those with the power don't care, and those who care don't have the power to do much about it except hope that their children grow up knowing enough English to be bilingual teachers in diverse public schools.

Last week, just in time to get lost in the hustle of the holidays, three high-minded foundations (Ford, Rockefeller, Spencer and Tinker) published a 232-page study -- survey research, really -- called ''Latino Voices -- Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban Perspectives on American Politics.'' It is an enormously interesting and important work that I will summarize here by saying that it shows that those three peoples came to America to be Americans, and that is exactly what they are doing with or without the help of the well-meaning fools running the Los Angeles schools.

The whole world is learning English because it is the language of modernity, the language of new words, the words you need to compute, or heal, or fly. (There are 550,000 words in English and 35,000 in Urdu, the language of Pakistan and northern India, which is why Pakistanis and Indians learn English.) And according to ''Latino Voices'': ''Among all Hispanic groups, it is only the foreign-born who speak mostly Spanish. The overwhelming majority of the native-born speak mostly English or are bilingual. This is especially true among Mexican-Americans.''

Among Mexican-Americans born in the United States, fewer than 3 percent speak only Spanish at home and more than 30 percent speak only English at home. Fewer than 10 percent of Mexicans believe schools should use the Spanish language to maintain their old culture. The pattern on both subjects is the same for Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans.

That seems about the same as I remember growing up in the 1950s in a Italian neighborhood in Jersey City, New Jersey. The parents of many of my friends, particularly the mothers, were first generation and spoke Italian at home. Their sons and daughters, my friends, are teachers and lawyers and doctors today -- but, of course, we all spoke only English at P.S. (that's Public School) No. 11 and at Lincoln High School.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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