Post Office Box 3465
Van Nuys, CA 91407
March 13, 1999
Governor Gray Davis
State Capitol Building
Sacramento, CA 95814
Dear Governor Davis:
Your campaign promise to make students and teachers accountable is correct. Although your goals may be noble, you have failed to completely recognize and define a major problem which is causing soaring school dropouts of Latino students. There is an issue that you and most other would-be school reformers have swept under the carpet -- immigration, both legal and illegal. Too often, concerned citizens do not want to voice their opinions in this regard for fear of being accused of being xenophobic or racist. I am neither (my wife immigrated from Mexico ten years ago).
Due to record numbers of immigrant arrivals, a significant percentage of students in California's public schools are older immigrant children who arrived in California at an age which corresponds to a grade level above kindergarten or first grade, who are presumed to have already attended public school in their native country.
With the elimination of social promotion and the proposed implementation of exit exams and student & teacher accountability, California might find that reading and academic scores will go up, but this will be because those that succeed will be a result of the "survival of the fittest." But Latino dropout rates will soar.
The educators have used a statistical trick to bamboozle the public -- they're not averaging the dropouts into test results! Using such methods, I can show you that Americans who lived in the 1700s lived longer than Americans do today, if I didn't count all those who died between birth and the age of twelve.
According to LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District), for the 1997-1998 school year, 1,885 students entered LAUSD from another state, another district, or a foreign country. LAUSD would not provide me with a breakdown, but it is a fair assumption that the vast majority of these out-of-district students are from another country -- principally Mexico. Based on the assumption that 1,885 out-of-district students have been entering LAUSD in 1st to 12th grades each year for the last 12 years, it can be extrapolated that there are over 22,000 of these out-of-district students enrolled in LAUSD at any given time -- the potential is great, especially for the older non-English speaking Latino students, that they will be written off as dropouts.
Thousands of parents send their teenage children from all over Mexico and other central American countries to live with relatives or friends in the U.S. The motives of the parents is often much different than that of their children. These parents who live in penury, want to decrease their headcount for economic reasons and at the same time hope that their child can earn some dollars to send home. For many of these absentee parents, their children's education takes a back seat to economic considerations. The children often live in California in crowded apartments with little or no adult supervision. Unfortunately, many of these older children want to go to California's schools for reasons other than learning. Many are more interested in instant gratification -- boyfriends/girlfriends, cars, music, parties, the good life, etc. -- things they aspire to that they have heard about through word of mouth. They have also heard that you don't have to know English, that sympathetic teachers will automatically pass you to the next grade (social promotion), and you will be granted a high school diploma without having to pass any exit exams.
Many of these older children and teenagers are smuggled across the border. But increasing numbers are able to come "legally." INS issues crossing permits (not visas) good for several days, to Mexicans who can show evidence to indicate that they will return to Mexico. Evidence can be one of several types such as a pay check stub to show that they have a steady job in Mexico, photo ID voting registration card, or a school photo ID (to attend public schools in Mexico, children must obtain a photo ID certifying Mexican citizenship). As you well know, false IDs are easily obtainable. Although these permits allow the bearer only a limited time in the U.S., the INS does not track the bearer. So when Mexican children want to enter the U.S., they use their easily obtained permit to come to L.A. and other places in California. INS assumes that these children must return to school in Mexico, but they have no way of actually knowing if they return at all. Thousands of Mexican schoolage children actually live on the U.S. side, many without their parents.
For reasons of state mandated "privacy protection," all California Kindergarten through 12th grade public schools have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding the background of immigrant students. Students are not required to produce transcripts from the school of their native country -- indeed, most do not have such information.
Any student enrolling in LAUSD for the first time, must be presented by a parent or legal guardian. Most of the older out-of-district students are accompanied by a family appointed "guardian" who would not be considered under California law, to be a legal guardian. In some cases, adult family relatives or friends pass themselves off as the children's parents, LAUSD does not verify the family relation of the guardian nor do they verify the legality of guardianship -- in fact, according to their affidavit (Bulletin No. Z-59, attachment C) which the guardian must fill out, it says "A person who relies on this affidavit has no obligation to make any further inquiry or investigation." Nor does LAUSD require the child's proof of age such as a birth certificate. LAUSD simply has the "guardian" fill out an affidavit stating the child's age (Bulletin No. Z-59, attachment B). Basically, the only requirement for a student to register in an LAUSD district, is a utility bill bearing the guardian's name showing that he/she lives in the district.
These students are not even given official written assessment tests in their native languages to determine where they stand academically. Such a test for some students who may be academically below average or illiterate, would defeat California's school districts' policy not to "damage the children's self esteem" or "embarrass" the older children by placing them in classes with younger children in a lower grade. With rare exception, older immigrant children are simply placed in grades that correspond to their age without regard to their academic ability.
In the past, in the social promotion scenario, a significant amount of immigrant children managed to graduate from high school nearly illiterate. Those who went on to college required affirmative action and remedial learning to attempt to make up for what they didn't learn in K-12 public schools. The college graduation statistics for these students is grim. And the very few who did manage to graduate from college, did not graduate as engineers, physicists, or scientists. Thus firms such as those in silicon valley must resort to importing foreigners who have been trained in their countries in the high tech arena.
Eliminating bilingual education was a good thing, but it doesn't help the older newly enrolled Hispanic kids. My wife and I have personal knowledge of our Tijuana friend's daughter Vicky who came to live with her aunt and uncle in North Hollywood and entered North Hollywood High at age 15 four years ago speaking almost no English (she still speaks little English). She was put in a class with children her own age, but she could not keep up with her studies which included a one hour ESL class, and dropped out. At social gatherings, Vicky has introduced us to dozens of her school friends who crossed the border just as she did. Many of these children who dropped out of school would not have succeeded even if the U.S. classes they entered were completely in Spanish because many had already dropped out of school at an early age in their native country. In reviewing last year's Spanish Aprenda test scores, I found that Latino students in the lower grades did better than those in the higher grades. This is strong evidence that recent immigrant older children and teenagers are pulling down the scores on standardized tests and NO WAY will they be able to pass high school exit exams.
Vicky lives in her uncle's overcrowded home with other family members and friends. Her uncle and aunt are unsophisticated and haven't taken much interest in Vicky's schooling. Many like Vicky, do not have parental supervision.
As word spreads of the ease in which older immigrant children can enter California's schools, the numbers of these out-of-district students is bound to increase significantly. In my opinion, the only way to save the California public school system from a Latino student dropout explosion, is to reform the admission policy and treat immigrant children who enter public schools in the second grade or above as special cases. Guardianship must be legal and verified. Children must be made to produce proof of age. And regardless of age, they must first learn English on a full time basis for at least a year before studying other academics, and then be classified by academic ability and placed in a grade commensurate with that ability. The word must get out to children and their parents in Mexico and other Latin American countries, that California schools are not picnics.
Those who would be opposed to such reforms, are the educators. The majority of them make a big deal about children loosing academics during a concentrated English learning period. But unless someone has a better idea, they had better consider this one -- and anyway, so what if children are prepared for college one or two years later than average.
For you, this may be a political catch 22. To do nothing, you and the educators will receive heat from the public when ultimately, the Latino dropout rate worsens in spite of your stated reforms. But to solve the problem pragmatically, would highlight the fact that LAUSD is accepting illegal immigrant children and would have the so called anti-immigrant radicals rightfully shouting "I told you so." But apart from this dilemma, much of the public's perception is that you are unlikely to buck your biggest campaign supporter and financial contributor, the education community who, for the most part, are opposed to changing the status quo.
Hopefully, you will have the courage to face this problem.
Ruben Zacarias, LAUSD School Superintendent
Terri Hardy, Education Editor, Los Angeles Daily News
Other unnamed recipients.