Commentary | Education

Lessons—Getting Far Too Much of a Good Thing

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON APRIL 3, 2002]

Getting Far Too Much of a Good Thing

By Richard Rothstein

Los Angeles — To protect children from harm in an earthquake, California legislators have for years been voting ever tougher structural requirements for new schools. But good intentions can have a high price: eliminating any possibility of earthquake injury poses other risks.

To see how, go to Second Street and Hobart Boulevard in Los Angeles any morning at 6:30.

There, 1,800 immigrant children line up outside Cahuenga Elementary School. The children live nearby, but Cahuenga has no room for them, and the earthquake rules have made it very hard to add new classroom space in the neighborhood. So aides guide these children onto buses for rides of up to an hour or more, to 30 schools outside the central city where seats are available.

The educational as well as transportation costs of this routine are evident. The pupils are bused to schools that usually don’t offer the Spanish- or Korean-language help that Cahuenga provides. Many, of low income, get free breakfast at school after the buses drop them off, but when the buses arrive late (rain or traffic accidents can tie up Los Angeles freeways), breakfast is delayed and lessons must then be skipped.

Further, while educators say parent involvement in school can raise achievement, busing precludes it for most of this neighborhood’s families. Schools are too distant for parents to attend conferences or volunteer in classes and school activities.

The transportation itself poses risks. About 52,000 of Los Angeles’s 737,000 students are bused from overcrowded schools, for a total of 40 million miles of student busing a year. With so much busing, a serious accident is almost inevitable; the chances of severe injury from a bus crash could be as great as from an earthquake.

California has greater earthquake risk than most states, so high structural standards are needed. But the added protection that the existing codes afford is tiny compared with the harm done children from the absence of a local school.

Though earthquake safety is a special concern in California, failure to consider hidden trade-offs is a problem in much of the country. In New York City, which is also afflicted by school overcrowding, construction is impeded by requirements that apply to the addition of classroom space. For example, the Board of Education insists that all electrical wiring in new schools be encased in metal tubing, a requirement far beyond what state and municipal building codes demand.

One block from Cahuenga here in Los Angeles is a four-story medical building. It was empty two years ago, and district officials hoped to acquire it for a small school. The building is certainly deemed safe for those who seek treatment there, including the elderly and children. But it could not be used as a school, because it did not comply with the state mandates, applicable to schools only, that among other things require inspectors to be present continuously during construction to ensure that each hidden joint is earthquake-proof.

Other well-intentioned policies also hinder construction. A civil rights settlement obliges Los Angeles not to build schools of lesser quality in the central city than in the suburbs. This means that new schools must have full playgrounds, for instance, a hard condition to meet in overcrowded areas.

Charter schools are not subject to those conditions. Not far from Cahuenga is a charter school, Camino Nuevo Academy, built in response to parents who wanted their children educated near home. Camino Nuevo occupies a converted two-level strip mall. Architects designed the conversion to be earthquake-proof, but district officials did not consider it for a regular school because it nonetheless violates school construction and playground rules.

If officials resolve to overcome such obstacles, they can probably do so. Here in California, Gov. Gray Davis and the Los Angeles superintendent of schools, Roy Romer, have now vowed to try to roll back the most restrictive rules, or have them waived for particular projects, despite the reluctance of some legislators to cast votes that opponents will charge endanger children.

Enrollment at Cahuenga for the next school year’s kindergarten will soon begin, with places going to neighborhood families who apply first. Hundreds of parents will camp on the sidewalk for days in advance, hoping that their children won’t have to be bused across the city. These children should be protected from earthquakes, but from other harm as well.

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