Opinion: Save the Academic Decathlon
In a city where some of the very rich are willing to pay $1 billion-plus for the bankrupt Dodgers baseball team, why can’t anyone spare $500,000 to support an Academic Decathlon program that brings luster to the often criticized Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)?
Unbelievably, funding for the annual Academic Decathlon, which pits high school students against their peers in a test of wits and knowledge, would be eliminated in the cuts proposed in the worst-case budget approved by the LAUSD board.
These cuts are planned unless teachers agree to four-day unpaid furloughs or voters support a parcel tax, an additional tax on property. Among the other cuts contemplated are the closing of all adult schools and abandonment of afterschool programs and English-as-a-second-language classes. Thousands of teachers would be dismissed.
News of the contemplated death of the Academic Decathlon program came out just as the Granada Hills Charter High School team won the 2012 California Academic Decathlon on March 19, its second consecutive win, completing a grueling period of preparation — with some sessions lasting eight hours a day — studying history, music, physics and math, learning to answer questions orally as well as on paper. LAUSD schools have won the state title 18 times since 1987, and 12 national titles.
I find it a bit suspicious that Superintendent John Deasy and the Board of Education would pick on the Academic Decathlon program in the midst of the budget crisis. Its cost is a relative pittance; its pluses are huge. Threatening to eliminate something so valuable sounds like a familiar LAUSD budget scare tactic.
“Every year, they go to the same filing cabinet and bring out the same old cuts,” said former school board member and teacher David Tokofsky. He’s the father of L.A.’s Academic Decathlon competition, starting the string of national and state victories with his Marshall High School team in 1987.
But let’s assume Deasy and the school board are not bluffing, that they’d really be willing to sacrifice this adornment to the school district to save a few dollars. Is there an alternative?
I talked to Tokofsky about raising money from private sources. He agreed with me about the availability of rich potential donors. He noted that some of them, and their foundations, are already putting money into the district to promote their own ideas of school reform, including paying salaries of some administrators they like.
There are others he figures would be willing to help. “There are really famous rock stars from Garfield and Banning and other schools,” he said. “There are athletes. We are so busy beating up the system that we don’t celebrate the people who could help us. We should hunt down the alumni who have the most romantic views of their schools. They’re out there, yet nobody is harvesting them.”
Tokofsky gave me a rundown on the approximately half a million dollars a year needed to finance the competition. The money goes for coaches, supplies, travel and food for the competitors, and salary for the official who administers it, Cliff Ker. Coaches, who are teachers, saw their extra pay cut this year from $5,000 a year to $2,800. Coaches work with the teams two or so hours daily at first, then five, six and even eight hours a day as competition nears.
“It’s very hard to find coaches,” Ker said. “It’s a lot of work, there is a lot of turnover — we have between 20 and 25 coaches leave each year, about a third. They are dealing with very bright kids, some more motivated than others, requiring many hours of study with very few tangible results until it is over. It has to be a very special individual who is dedicated, can put in the time, [is] disciplined, kind of a whole bunch of John Wooden clones,” said Bruins fan Ker, invoking the name of the famed late UCLA basketball coach.
“Part of my job is to get donations,” Ker said. “David [Tokofsky] has helped me. But the most we have raised in a year is $100,000. Recently, we have raised [only] $50,000 a year. I have gotten leads, but I don’t know whether it is my [lack of] fundraising skills, or I’m not connected, but I have only been able to raise that $50,000.”
The district could help more. The Academic Decathlon makes headlines during competition time, but Deasy and his media staff could turn themselves into John Wooden clones and do much more.
The high school students and their coaches bring something positive to a district flooded with gloomy news about test scores, labor management disputes and investigations into a few perverted teachers. And now, with the stroke of a pen in their bureaucratic hands, Deasy and the school board are threatening to kill something so good.
Los Angeles can’t leave it up to them. We’re loaded with rich people — film executives and stars, athletes, Midas-touch financiers, developers, etc. They give to museums, universities, charities, foundations and political campaigns. Synagogues, churches and many other causes. A small portion of this wealth should go for LAUSD’s amazingly successful Academic Decathlon teams.
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).