Will recession fuel a return to public schools?


Throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District, the recession is prompting middle-class parents to take a look at public middle and high schools they have long disdained. Private schools are just too expensive for many people.

A large number of Jews, whose heritage and culture put a high value on education, are in this economically stressed category. That is why the present and future of the Los Angeles schools is a Jewish issue, one that deserves a place high up on the community’s agenda.

“The number of people who can’t afford private school is increasing,” said Marlene Canter, the Los Angeles school board member who has for two terms represented the Westside and its many Jewish residents and who is about to step down. I met with Canter and her field representative, Paola Santana, for breakfast last week in Westwood to talk about her efforts to persuade Westside residents to send their children to public schools. She represents the Fourth District, which extends from the Palisades and Brentwood to Marina del Rey and includes Mar Vista, Palms, Westwood, Westchester and Venice. It also reaches as far east as Hollywood.

We discussed the current recession’s impact on Jewish families who began abandoning the LAUSD generations ago, when court-ordered desegregation touched off a white exodus from the school system. While this was happening, Los Angeles’ population was changing, and many schools became predominantly Latino. The change is reflected in high schools in Canter’s district.

University High School’s student body is almost 60 percent Latino, 18.6 percent black, 8.9 per cent Asian and 10.3 percent white. At Venice High, Latinos comprise almost 73 percent, whites 11 percent, blacks almost 11 percent and Asians almost 4 percent. Hollywood High School’s students are 77.8 percent Latino, 9.4 percent white, 4.7 percent black and 3.8 percent Asian.

Canter said she starts with the premise that “every child should have an opportunity to get a great public education in a public school.”

You can’t very well make the argument that the schools throughout the Los Angeles district are great schools. The district is huge and covers the Southland’s poorest and toughest neighborhoods. LAUSD’s leadership is unstable and uncertain, smothering initiative with a huge blanket of bureaucracy. The teachers’ union opposes attempts to change work rules that shelter the incompetent. So does the principals’ union. (Yes, unbelievably, they have a union, too).

But there are many talented teachers and principals in the Los Angeles schools. I saw some bad principals, but good ones, too, when I wrote about the schools for the Los Angeles Times more than a decade ago, and I was reminded of the high-quality personnel in September when I met with Los Angeles High School teachers for a column for Truthdig, the web magazine. I was impressed.

In this climate, Canter is stepping up her efforts to urge parents to consider sending their children to middle and high schools in their neighborhoods. There are, she acknowledged, other choices within LAUSD — charter schools and magnets. But charters are often located far from home, and for admission to magnets, parents must navigate through a complicated lottery system based on points. Local schools are making an attempt to improve, and they could be an attractive choice.

What’s more, many public schools aren’t the same monolithic campuses that they once were. There’s been a movement to create small learning centers, offering special programs known as Schools for Advanced Studies, for example, for honors students, or specialized “academies” for kids particularly interested in math, science or performing arts, among others. These schools-within-schools are very popular, creating not only specialized learning centers for the students, but also a sense of community. And they take only a simple application for admission. You can find them in many LAUSD middle and high schools.

Earlier this year, Canter arranged for Ray Cortines, the recently named LAUSD school superintendent who at the time was deputy superintendent, to meet with a group of parents at a Westside Coffee Bean to tout the virtues of University High. Kathy Gonnella, principal of Emerson Middle School, has also hosted a wine and cheese evening for parents. My daughter, mother of two children, went to the latter and came back impressed. Earlier this year, I attended an evening meeting at Webster Middle School, where several principals pitched their Westside middle and high schools.

“What we are doing is breaking down perceptions,” Canter said, attitudes that have been 30 years in the making, dating back to the desegregation controversy.

She said the principals and teachers have to play a big role in bringing about the change. “Principals in private schools spend a lot of time marketing themselves,” she said. But in the past, she said, “our principals have never tried.” The schools, she said, “must open the doors to the parents.”

In addition, she said, the school board must make marketing LAUSD a high priority.

Of course the need to bring back middle-class parents extends far beyond the Jewish community. It is important throughout the district. It is unfair, unjust and simply dead wrong for a parent to be forced to mortgage the family future to send a kid to a private school that may or may not provide the education the child needs. Harvard Westlake is a good school, but graduation from there is not an automatic ticket to the Ivy League.

Los Angeles’ public high schools should be a path to Harvard, UCLA, Berkeley, USC, Cal State Northridge or any other college. As a matter of fact, they already often are. The district is making an effort to improve and has succeeded in many schools.

With more parents considering such an alternative, it is up to the L.A. school district to convince them that it is a good choice.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Pinched pocketbooks no bar to party planning


Pinched Pocketbooks NoBar to Party Planning

Have tough economic times forced you to scale back your child’s bar or bat mitzvah party plans? With your 401(k) down, is the ice sculpture out? Is your resetting ARM making you reconsider that 18-piece orchestra?

If so, you can still have one of the best bar or bat mitzvah parties ever.

Paul, who lives in the northern Sierras and preferred not to use his last name, was pleased with the modest bar mitzvah party he and his wife hosted last month for their son.

“We had a Kiddush at our little synagogue immediately after the bar mitzvah and a catered dinner for about 75 people at the lodge building at our town’s public park,” he said.

Paul spent about $40 per person, including food and “midrange” wines. After dinner, guests were invited back to the house, including many out-of-town relatives and friends, for more time to visit and socialize. The kids had their own fun, and music was provided via a Bose iPod dock.

This modest party wasn’t prompted as much by economic pressure as it was by being turned off by what Paul and his wife considered “large, garish bar and bat mitzvah parties” they had attended on which “embarrassing” amounts of money were spent.

“We frankly think it is shameful and a violation of both the tenets of Judaism and good taste to throw a huge and lavish bar or bat mitzvah party,” Paul said.

Paul’s hardly alone. When Rob Frankel and his wife planned their daughter’s bat mitzvah, they were so turned off by their synagogue’s onerous rules (including vetting the parents’ speeches) and insistence on using an expensive caterer, that later they did their son’s bar mitzvah totally on their own, from using a “rent-a-rabbi” to teach their son and provide a rental Torah scroll and bimah.

“The whole year’s training and day of service cost less than a year of temple membership dues,” Frankel recalled.

The Frankels also saved money by creating their own save-the-date postcards, invitations, tribute videos and thank-you cards.

Rabbi Steven Leder, senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and author of “More Money Than God,” encourages all parents planning bar and bat mitzvah parties to keep the focus on Judaism and on the child. When he meets with parents, he asks them to make two lists: one of values they consider Jewish and another of values they associate with bar/bat mitzvah parties.

The lists are starkly different. While the Jewish values list often includes sacred music, spirituality and community, the list of values associated with the bar mitzvah parties can include sexuality, gross excess, drinking and narcissism.

Leder has found this exercise very useful.

After discussing the values gap between the bar mitzvah service and the typical bar mitzvah party, “parents feel they have permission to embrace a more child-appropriate event and one with more Jewish content,” he said.

He recommends that a Saturday night party begin with a Havdalah ceremony and that parents should be more discerning about the music played at the event. He also encourages that some money be donated to MAZON-A Jewish Response to Hunger. One creative mom at the synagogue, tired of seeing party favors that went to waste, began doing mitzvah projects at parties, such as having kids make stuffed animals, which are then donated to a children’s hospital.

Leder also keeps parties held at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in line by insisting on no hard liquor, no amplified music outside and no inappropriate d├ęcor or themes, such as Halloween.

“We’re trying to avoid glaring contradictions to Jewish values,” he noted. “Besides, kid-friendly parties automatically save money.”

Chai’le Ingber, a Los Angeles-based party planner, says that times are changing when it comes to money and party planning. She acknowledges that while most people able to hire a planner aren’t the ones feeling the pinch as much as some others, she has found lately that some are choosing to scale back, so as not to flaunt their wealth at a time when so many others are hurting or are earmarking some money that would have gone to the party to tzedakah instead.

Ingber recommends that anyone who can host a party at home do so.

“There’s always something so special about a home party, when friends have helped out. Leave out the hall and the band if you can. You’ll cut major expenses, while creating a beautiful, homey event,” she said.

Inger even overheard her daughter, who recently completed her bat mitzvah circuit year, agree with friends that the most fun parties they had attended were home-based, because they were not done to impress adults but were geared to what the girl wanted.

Other ideas to save money include using a school auditorium or nonhotel venue.

“With a little creativity and twist you can transform even plain rooms into a themed room,” Ingber said.

After choosing a theme or colors with your child, inexpensive crafts and flowers can be found in a variety of stores downtown. And paper plates and plastic cutlery can still add color while saving money.

“The truth is, community pressure to create a certain kind of party can be intense, but it’s not the $500 cake that makes the party; it’s the hosts and the child who welcome you into their home or the hall who make it special. If the hosts are stiff and stressed, it’s worthless,” Ingber said.

Aaron Cooper, psychologist and author of “I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy,” hopes that more parents begin to see the upside of financial adversity in the form of valuable lessons learned and resilience developed.

Too many bar and bat mitzvah parties, he notes, have been marked by the worshipful emphasis on the child that colors so much contemporary parenting, yet spirituality and a sense of meaning are two of the ingredients essential for happy lives.

“What do we want the outstanding memory to be when our son or daughter looks back from middle age to their bar or bat mitzvah event? If a pinched pocketbook helps parents re-think this question, it’s the kids who will reap the dividends someday,” he said.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement.”


Cut Costs, Not the Fun

Want to keep your costs low without alienating your family, friends and fellow congregants? Consider these tips from the proud survivor of a bar mitzvah party.

  • Buy a planner notebook and organize everything yourself, instead of hiring a party planner.
  • Skip the banquet hall and rent a neighborhood or community clubhouse, large room at an activity center or school assembly hall.
  • Cater through your favorite restaurant, instead of using a restaurant or banquet hall that only has package deals or would be more costly. If you get a package deal somewhere, read the fine print: There are invariably all kinds of strange charges, such as corkage fees, cake-cutting fees, charges for valet service and security.
  • Make your own centerpieces, adding a few balloons on top, with confetti sprinkled around the base. Decorate simply — sometimes too much really looks like too much.
  • Design and print your own invitations, RSVP cards and placecards. Today’s online paper businesses and PC applications make this easier and more beautiful than you could have imagined five years ago.
  • If your synagogue allows it, have your friends make the desserts and/or oneg sweets instead of buying them from a bakery. Get all of your beverages — alcoholic and no-alcoholic — on your own from a place like Costco, Trader Joe’s or BevMo.
  • Have your dinner for the out-of-towners in a Chinese or Italian restaurant that serves family-style platters — this cuts way down on the cost of individual meals.
  • Have a luncheon instead of a bar mitzvah dinner because lunch typically costs less. Alternately, forgo one really huge celebration and have two little ones — a casual oneg luncheon and then a kids-only party in the evening.
  • Interview and hire a photographer who will give you the disc with all of your photos, and you can make the album yourself online, with the help of a service like Flickr.com. It’s a very easy process once you learn how. Making the album yourself costs about one-half to one-third of the traditional proofs-and-album route.

— Denise Koek, Contributing Writer

Tax Cuts Bring Shameful Silence


“Listen, we’re broke. Let’s face it,” said Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) last week, according to the Washington Post. Boehner, the chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, spoke as congressional Republicans haggled over big spending cuts for critical health and social service programs.

But the conservative lawmaker spoke only half of the story; the nation is broke, at least in part, because of huge tax cuts demanded by the Republican Congress and administration. And even as they say we can no longer afford programs that benefit the poor and middle class, they are talking about more tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy.

Before you criticize Boehner’s blindness to some basic economic realities, take a hard look at the Jewish communal world, where organizations still claim the mantle of social justice activism but refuse to take a stand on the issue that is reshaping America.

That reality will be in full view in the coming months as many Jewish groups lobby against big cuts in critical programs but duck for cover when lawmakers talk about the causes of the budget crisis, starting with tax cuts.

It’s not that Jews don’t care about those less fortunate — including many in our own community. But their organizations are too frightened of their own big donors, too timid about picking a fight with a vengeful administration to wade into the tax fray.

This month House Republicans will try to wrap up work on proposals aimed at slowing the hemorrhage of red ink from federal budget ledgers while finding a way to pay for hundreds of billions of dollars of hurricane relief and for two wars that don’t seem about to end anytime soon.

Proposals include slashing key entitlement programs by $50 billion and reducing overall spending by 2 percent — and cutting taxes another $70 billion.

You don’t need to be a CPA to understand the math flaw here; the results, according to most estimates, will be drastic cuts in critical programs like Medicaid and Medicare and a bigger debt load to pass along to our children.

In the past, emergencies requiring big increases in government spending produced a shared willingness to shoulder the burden. Now, it’s those least able to take care of themselves during trying times who are being forced to sacrifice the most, while the rich just get richer and anti-government ideologues use the explosive combination of tax cuts and high deficits to start dismantling the entire structure of government services.

Jewish groups will fight like crazy to avert cuts to important programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps and subsidized housing for the elderly, all of which benefit many Jews. They will talk piously about their commitment to social justice for all.

But only the Reform Movement has stated the obvious: that big tax cuts under current circumstances can only eviscerate the nation’s ability to respond to new emergencies and undermine what’s left of the nation’s social safety net.

Jewish groups have lost their voices for two very obvious reasons: the fact that many of their top, big-money donors are benefiting handsomely from the tax-cut fever in Washington, and a reluctance to lock horns with an administration and Congress that have made tax cuts an article of faith in their conservative revolution.

There’s a big gap between what Jewish leaders say privately — most believe a policy of big tax cuts at a time of war and growing social needs can only produce economic disaster — and what they say for public consumption, which is essentially nothing.

As the budget fight intensifies, Jewish groups may be able to limit the damage to a few key programs they care about.

But ultimately, their silence on taxes means they are not talking about the policies that are creating unbearable pressure on the budget, guaranteeing that today’s cuts are just the beginning of a trend that will ultimately undo most of what’s left of the nation’s social safety net.

What makes their silence even more destructive is the fact that tax cuts are part of a deliberate strategy by those who have a very different view of the role of the government in helping the needy than do most Jewish groups.

Other religious groups understand the connection. Recently the National Council of Churches wrote to members of Congress criticizing “excessive tax cuts that help only the wealthy,” and calling the combination of cuts in programs and continuing tax cuts “a moral disaster of monumental proportion.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has expressed strong concerns about continuing tax cuts at a time of national emergency.

But Jewish groups continue to tiptoe around the issue, and in doing so they are losing any chance of influencing a debate that will shape life in America for generations to come. Their silence on taxes means Jewish leaders will be forsaking their claim to be champions of social justice, and it will expose all their talk about tikkun olam as just that — talk.

 

Vote Yes on 57, 58: They Will Ease Crisis


It certainly is an unusual situation, but we Republicans are encouraging you to vote to increase the debt of the state of California, and we are doing it with a straight face.

As you know, Proposition 57 is asking Californians to commit to a bond issue of $15 billion. This commitment will allow our state budget to be stabilized, so that we can begin the process of moving forward.

If you study the state budgets over the last few years as I have, you would see that we have had a deficit at the end of each year that keeps getting larger each and every year. Even when revenues were perceived to be at a peak, we were outspending those revenues. The state budget began each year in the hole that just got deeper as the months went by.

Now we have a twofold problem. We must deal with the backlog created from prior years and try to balance this year’s budget, where expenses still are outstripping revenues. Proposition 57 will allow us to focus on eliminating the current budget imbalance without the draconian past debt facing us.

As it is, we will face serious cuts in our state budget. The growth in expenditures will have to be eliminated and actual cuts in important programs will have to be made.

As much as some of us would like to effect the cuts now that are necessary to erase this debt, we have come to the conclusion that it would significantly harm our state’s economy. This would stifle the immediate economic growth we need to reach budget equilibrium.

This new debt is not going away. That is understood. We are going to have to pay it back over the next decade. It will be in a fashion that will allow our legislators to craft a budget that will not start wallowed in debt before the opening discussions begin. By our good fortune, this debt will be financed at today’s very low interest rates.

The question then becomes how do we prevent this disastrous situation from re-occurring. We must pass the companion proposition — No. 58. It specifically makes it illegal to create any future bonds to finance a budget deficit again. It requires the Legislature to balance the budget.

Proposition 58, in addition to requiring a balanced budget each year, establishes that there must be a budget reserve in case projected revenues fall short. This is an important part of the measure.

A year in advance, some very smart people sit down and project what the revenues are going to be for the next 12 months for the world’s sixth largest economy. As smart as they are, it is a Herculean task, where it is easy to be off a billion dollars or more. This reserve will recognize that projections are only projections, and we should provide a cushion for dealing with the inevitable changes.

These new budget requirements can only be deviated from when there is a fiscal emergency upon which both the governor and Legislature agree. Some would say that a balanced budget should be locked in stone.

Those feelings are certainly justified after the dismal performance of the last few years. Once we divorce ourselves from those feelings and look at the budgeting process on a long-term basis, it becomes easier to see that this is a necessary clause that allows our elected officials to act responsibly, when a true disaster happens. If, God forbid, another earthquake occurs matching the damage caused by the Northridge quake, we would all want our leaders in Sacramento to do what is necessary to return our lives to normal.

These are the reasons why a broad spectrum of the political and financial universe is supporting both Proposition 57 and 58. It is a reasoned plan of action.

There may be alternative plans that seem good, but this one is worked out and ready to go. Let’s give it a chance and make judgment about its success after we see the full effects.

There are many important votes to cast on March 2, but none is more important for the future stability of our state than to vote yes on Proposition 57 and 58.


Bruce L. Bialosky is the Southern California chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Health Care Requires Resuscitation


Eric Moore is frustrated. Within weeks after losing his computer consulting job, the 30-year-old UCLA graduate collapsed from a pulmonary embolism. He has since recovered, but faces a $14,000 hospital bill.

Dr. Alexandra Levine is frustrated. The head of the USC-Norris Cancer Center faces numerous barriers to providing the care she’d like to provide to her patients. One patient required a medication that could be taken at home via injection. Since Medicare doesn’t cover prescription drugs, but will pay if the drug is administered in the hospital, Levine’s 91-year-old patient was forced to make a thrice-weekly trek from the Valley to the center, and each time the tab to Medicare was twice as high as it would have been had the medication been taken at home.

Luis Jiminez is frustrated. The 29-year-old entrepreneur started an online marketing and Web business, which now boasts a staff of 11. But he can’t afford to provide health insurance for his employees.

"We have a continuing crisis in this country of millions of Americans without health insurance, and that’s just plain wrong," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who will speak Friday, April 25 at Leo Baeck Temple as part of a series on health care.

In 2001, approximately 41 million Americans — more than 14 percent of the nation’s population — went without health insurance for the entire year, and another 20 to 30 million lacked coverage for part of the year. With health care premiums increasing at about 11 percent a year, big companies are paying a smaller percentage of those premiums, and small businesses are finding they can no longer afford to provide health care at all. These factors, combined with job layoffs resulting from a weakened economy, have left a growing number of people without health insurance.

Meanwhile, health care costs are skyrocketing. In 2000, $1.3 trillion was spent on health care in the United States, a 7 percent increase from the prior year.

According to Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., the average family spends four times as much on health care today as it did in 1980.

"This country has yet to make a decision that every man, woman and child has a human right — a civil right — to health care," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, speaking at Leo Baeck Temple last month. While implementing such a decision "may be complicated and expensive," he said, "it’s not as expensive as not doing it — not as expensive financially and not as expensive morally."

Because those without coverage tend to postpone seeing a doctor, preventable conditions become severe illnesses, needlessly harming patients and unnecessarily driving up health care costs. The uninsured also tend to use emergency rooms as their only source for medical treatment, limiting the ability of those facilities to provide more urgent care. And while many believe the majority of uninsured are unemployed, 80 percent of the uninsured come from working families.

In Los Angeles County, one out of every three residents lacks health insurance. More than 80,000 of the uninsured are children. Budget shortfalls spur continued cuts to county health services. Twelve public care centers and four school-based clinics have closed since June 2002, and High Desert Medical Center in Lancaster and Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey are currently targeted for closure. These closures put an added burden on remaining facilities, raising the troubling specter that crucial services will be unavailable when we most need them.

"Whether you live in Bel Air or in Torrance or in Pomona … you have a stake in providing health care to the maximum number of people," Yaroslavsky said. Otherwise, he said, you had better hope "that a mother who has a kid with an ear ache doesn’t come to the ER … and gobble up space … while your heart attack is going on."

For those who consider the predominantly poor, immigrant patients who use county facilities somehow less deserving of care, USC’s Levine had sharp words.

"Who we see at this hospital is you — your mothers, your grandmothers, your great-grandmothers. All of us were immigrants in this country…. And what do these people do? They train every physician in the U.S. Did I learn how to do a spinal tap on you? No I did not. I learned on someone in the county hospital…. We owe them because of our roots and because of what they do for all of us on a daily basis."

As for the national picture, "reform must become a reality because we have no other choice," Saperstein said. "The question no longer is whether there will be health care reform, but what form these changes will take."

A number of proposals are on the table nationally and on the state level. Some aim to expand availability of health care coverage by pooling individuals or small employer groups into large groups. Others seek to expand Medicare, Medicaid and/or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Still others propose use of tax credits to help families purchase insurance or tax incentives to encourage employer-sponsored plans and benefits.

Waxman is particularly critical of the Bush administration’s approach to health care.

"The Bush administration is trying to undermine the programs we’ve got, and nowhere is this more obvious than Medicare. They refuse to add a meaningful prescription drug benefit to traditional Medicare…. Instead, they want to use a drug benefit … to force people into private insurance plans or HMOs, where they won’t have guaranteed benefits or assurance that they can see their own doctors."

Saperstein and Yaroslavsky say the way to get effective legislation passed is to make sure lawmakers know health care is a priority for voters. Politicians need to hear from their constituents about this issue, and to know that it drives contributions and votes.

"We have got to raise the political stakes nationally to make provision of health care a priority," Saperstein said.

Rep. Henry Waxman will speak about "The National Crisis in Health Care," on Friday, April 25, at Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Services begin at 8 p.m. For more information, call (310) 476-2861.