What Do The LA School Wars Say About America's Future?

Last week saw two events exemplifying the vast contradiction between how the American upper middle class views IQ and schooling in public—and what it actually thinks in private.

The widely-reviled heretic Charles Murray published three essays in the Wall Street Journal on how we are kidding ourselves about schooling ("Half of all children are below average in intelligence, and teachers can do only so much for them"), college ("Too many Americans are going to college"), and the wisdom of the elite ("Those with superior intelligence need to learn to be wise"), and was … widely reviled for his heresy.

Meanwhile, the bourgeois parents of liberal Los Angeles were in a frenzy as last Friday's deadline for postmarking applications for magnet public schools bore down upon them.

Bob Sipchen wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

"Negligent Los Angeles parents take note: You have only until Friday to get a postmark on the magnet school application that your more responsible peers regard—rightly or wrongly—as their last desperate hope for getting their children a good education at taxpayer expense… It goes without saying that you're terrified of the local middle school, which you just assume has lousy test scores because of those tough-looking kids you see hanging out in front, presumably spreading graffiti, smack and STDs." [How to make it to a magnet By Bob Sipchen (Monday's Column, Jan. 15, 2007)]

For example, the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (SOCES) received 2939 applications last year for its 192 openings. That seven percent acceptance rate is lower than Harvard's.

The LA Times ran daily updates of the "Ask a Magnet Yenta" advice column by Sandra Tsing Loh on how to manipulate the magnet system to avoid having to send your kid to either a normal public school or a private school that can run up to $27,000.

"Actually, now that there are so many Democrats in private school, the preferred term is 'independent" school,'" acidly notes Loh, who may be the only conservative performance artist in America, in her hilarious "Scandalously Informal Guide to Los Angeles Schools."

Why does what Loh calls the "Prius-driving screenwriter" class find magnets so magnetically attractive? Some magnets have admissions requirements (such as, in a couple of cases, scoring at the 99.9th percentile on the Wechsler IQ test), but most magnets in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) choose students solely through lotteries. Yet many boast significantly higher test scores, up to 60 percentiles above the normal open enrollment public school in the same neighborhood.

It would be nice if the magnets had discovered some magic formula for making children brighter. But, in reality, they typically succeed by attracting smarter, more diligent parents, who tend to have smarter, more diligent children. Notably, the better magnets tend to have higher percentages of whites and Asians than are found in the overall LAUSD—the country's second largest district, where whites make up only nine percent and Asians six percent of total students.

The court order setting up the LA magnet system in 1977 established a quota of 40 percent for white students. But far fewer white kids now remain in LAUSD. So, in an amusing example of "reverse-reverse discrimination", it's sometimes easier for whites to get into a fashionable magnet than for the much more numerous minorities. Further boosting the desirability of magnets, Asians, who are so often indefatigable in finding the best free schools for their kids, are legally considered a minority in magnets (unlike in college admissions, where they are normally defined as part of the majority). So many magnets have only a limited number of Hispanics and blacks.

And that's definitely okay with LA's liberal upper middle class. They may talk a good game about the benefits of diversity, but they ignore their oft-proclaimed principles when it comes to what their own children's peer group will look like.

As Loh notes, at the hilltop "independent" school where her Prius-driving screenwriter friend who couldn't get his kids into a magnet spends $38,000 annually to educate his six-year-old twins, they "honor diversity among the foliage". And yet

"To judge by the student population there, L.A. "diversity" looks like 14 white kids and Savion Glover. 10 white kids and 5 brown kids is "urban", 5 white kids and 10 brown kids looks, well, not safe".

So, what's the magnet schools' secret for keeping away uninvolved and unintelligent parents?

Simple: LAUSD makes the magnet application process dauntingly confusing. As Sipchen wrote in the LA Times:

"There is an element of self-selection that gives magnets an advantage. If Juanita-Jane's mom goes through the psychic pain of cracking the application process, is she going to let her daughter mess up? And if parents are doing their bit to keep their kids in line academically, is it any wonder that the best teachers apply to these programs and arrive at work with a good attitude?"

The most baffling aspect of the magnet system is that it pays for your child to first be rejected for several years. That's the prime way for your child to build up the requisite "magnet points" to move to the head of the line in the lottery when you really want to get the little dear into a magnet.

Are the Prius-driving screenwriters' stereotypes about non-magnet public schools in LA correct?

Recently, reams of test score data about public school students have become available. Unfortunately, there are so many different tests across the country that the scores are difficult for the public to interpret.

For example, the LAUSD reports that Jefferson High in Los Angeles has an API of 482. But what does that mean? Is 482 high or low? Parents of prospective students desperately want to know, but education officials aren't in any hurry for you to get a good grasp of what that score means.

Fortunately, I finally found a database that reports, for each of the 379 public high schools serving the ten million people of Los Angeles County, the average score on a test widely understood by Americans—the venerable SAT college admissions test.

These high school SAT scores have important implications for public policy. For example, in several states where racial preferences in college admissions have been challenged by referenda or by the courts, the legislature adopted plans guaranteeing spots in the state's university system to anyone whose grade point average ranked in his school's top twenty percent (Florida), ten percent (Texas), or four percent (California)…no matter how low his SAT or ACT scores.

Are all these students likely to thrive at state universities? Or will many find themselves floundering in a school where the pace of instruction is too fast for them?

And what do these SAT scores by high school say about the No Child Left Behind act?

Finally, what do the students of Los Angeles County portend for the future of America, which is being transformed by public policy into something that increasingly looks like LA writ large?

I'll review these data in detail next week.

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]