A Really Liberal Education


WHEN WESTSIDE Alternative School opened in Venice, California, it had a principal some textbooks, a few teachers, and a bunch of kids. That was it. No classrooms, no passing periods, no lenses no flagpole Classes were held on the beach pavilion or by the seashore and the principal handled his administrative chores out of a VW buy Abundance for the 250-odd students was voluntars, and everyone--teacher and pupil went by first name Parents, faculty, and students shared responsibility for all school decisions.

That was the shape of school reform 15 years ago The Los Angeles Board of Education established Westside and other alternative schools as an experimental response to sidespread parental dissatisfaction with the public schools. Traditional education--stressing conformity, arbittary discipline, and learning by rote had failed for many Progressive education, growing out of the social reflection that characterized the era, sought to do away with the centralized, bureaucratic, anonymous pubic school and replace it with a school whose role would be defined by the community, including the students, it served.

Westside was founded at the tail-end of the last major movement for educational change School reform is, in 1985, again an issue of concern to parents and politicians, but the emphasis is completely different. Where educational theorists in the 1960s sought: to tree the student from the bounds that allegedly shackled tree though in the public schools, today's reformers seek a return to what they think schools were in the Good Old Days places where dedicated and respected teachers rigorously taught the traditional disciplines to eager and obedient pupils From California Supt of Public Instruction Bill Hong to New Jersey Commissioner of Education Saul Cooperman, conservatives are leading the way back to what, in an interesting crymological paradox, is called liberal education.

THERE'S ALOT to be said for the new school reform movement. People are paying attention to education and what it means, with big payoffs for the public schools. Confronting what the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education called a "rising tide of mediocrity" threatening to destroy American education, state legislatures have appropriated more money for school systems that may have floated near bankruptcy during the tax revolt of the 1970s. Along with increased funding come stipualtion intended to Strengthen both the teaching precession and the level of instruction in the public schools; California's 1983 educational reform act established a competency test for teachers along with tougher graduation requirements for student.

In trying to undo the problems of he public schools, thought, reformers threaten to introduce a new conformity in elementary and secondary education. The era in education that created Westside Alternative School is associated with a permissiveness and a quest for relevance that demolished intellectual rigor Projects that emphasized progressive education open condors, community schools, alternative or school-within-a-school programs--are being phased but their students directed back into mainstream education. When school boards consider projects beyond improvement of the local school, they reflect the values of 1980s material culture rather than free thought: the Los Angeles Board of Education has not founded any alternative schools since 1973, but in 1981 it did establish the Downtown Business High School.

The closing down of serious educational options for public school students is disappointing, but the reform movement has even more frightening aspects. Ultraconservative religious and political factions are gaining momentum, passing sweeping public education reforms in an attempt to add their particular views on society to the of "creation science" alongside evolution in Arkansas and Louisiana classrooms have run into trouble with the courts, but effort to add an ideological tenor to public instruction continue. Last summer Congress approved a measure denying federal desegregation funding to school districts teaching "secular humanism." The bill, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), does not define exactly what "secular humanism" is, but one opponent of the measure suggested it would apply to "attention given, in literature courses, to erotic themes; emphasis, in American history courses, on unequal distribution of wealth; the prevalence in schools of wealth atheistic philosophy' that is at war with the principles of a 'Christian nation.'"

THE DANGER, then, is that education reformers will go too far in what is generally a worthy quest to restore quality to lackluster public schools. Efforts to archive consistency can result in uniformly moreover, communities may, understate mandate, lose control of what their schools will teach. Students, never accorded much of a role in planning their own studies, are losing whatever measure of free choice they did have, whether that involves taking driver education and not trigonometry, or opting put of the comprehensive high school entirely. True school reform, rather than replacing the failures on the phase in educational theory with those of another, should seek to offer as many different educational options as many different educational options as possible. There are many roads to a good education, but few in today's reform movement seem willing to acknowledge that.

Westside Alternative School, still in Venice, now has a fenced campus, a public address system, and even a flagpole. Attendance is enforced, and power once held communally through regular participatory meetings is now exercised by the principal. Students were, however, asked in a schoolwide referendum if they preferred boils or a recorded message to announce passing periods. Educational reform has a lot of good things to offer, but systemwide conformity is not one of them.