What We Never Learn

A mural inside Hamilton High School

The Times' Steve Lopez wrote a column yesterday about the pound of flesh the ugly-and-getting-uglier economy is about to extract from Hamilton High, the Westside school widely known for its two magnets, humanities and music academy. (Early disclosure: my husband has taught in the Humanities magnet since it started in 1982 and is pretty much an institution there). The kind of blow Hami is being dealt in the form of layoff notices to key, irreplaceable staff like the humanities coordinator and orchestra director has, at this point, become numbingly familiar.

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The fact that the Hami campus has historically been a bright spot of achievement and innovation in LAUSD (mostly due to the magnets, though the non-magnet "community school" has had its moments) doesn't matter at all. The drumbeat march toward public-sector cuts, especially in education, is rolling on as public officials (as distinguished from public employees) keep concluding that ultimately, there's nothing they can do.

Democrats don't really like the school cuts, but they seem only able to wring their hands like a Greek chorus, predicting (accurately) the doom that will surely be visited upon all of us if we keep going down this road But down the road we continue to go. Funny, for a country that prides itself on choice and bold thinking, those things are always the first thing to go missing in discussions of state budgets. The stock response to a fiscal crisis of any proportion is to hack away at the biggest and most obvious expenditures, education and social services. Totally unimaginative. Yet the idea of closing a few corporate tax loopholes or suggesting that the wealthiest bear a bit more of the tax burden is met with stony silence or political ridicule, even in allegedly liberal California (Remember what happened to Phil Angelides when he campaigned on this stuff back in 2006? He was jeered loudly and often for running the most tin-eared gubnatorial campaign in state history).

But back to Hamilton. One of the reasons the cuts being levied there are considered locally tragic is that it is a campus with programs that offer educational quality and choice. For that reason it's attracted a diverse population of students across the city, which Lopez rightly applauded in his column. But Hamilton has always had a somewhat privileged status. Thanks to the magnets, it might be the only urban high school left in the district that attracts white middle- and upper middle class students and allows it to be truly diverse, at least on paper. The fact that it, like so many other schools, suffers from racial achievement gaps is a minor point among its loyal following, which include the private-school set that is scrambling now than ever for more economical--but high quality--alternatives to pricey places like Marlborough or Crossroads.

Hami has an exclusiveness among public high schools that isn't unwarranted, but the exclusiveness is disturbing. How many other deserving, geographically critical but racially isolated campuses in less desireable ZIP codes get media any attention for their budget cuts? How many schools do we fight for, and how many do we regularly concede to failure, either because of too little funding or too little of something else?

But one lesson we all need to take away from Lopez's column is the fact that a cadre of Hamilton's students--a very diverse bunch--got so mad about the cuts, they're organizing and taking their objections to higher-ups. They may not win, but they refuse go quietly. That's their choice, and it needs to be all of ours.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user greenlagirl. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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