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Fall 2000
The Slum Buster
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Law Professor Gary Blasi and a group of students spent five months investigating California's public schools, uncovering Dickensian conditions of squalor and neglect.

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By Mona Gable

"There is a shortage of college counselors at our school. College counselors help you plan your future and make it a reality. But here, there's only one college counselor for the whole school. That's not enough to give students individual attention and advice. And sometimes I wonder why? Don't they think we want to go to college? Don't they think we have dreams, too?"— Maria, 11th grader, Los Angeles

Gary Blasi ponders the question: What is the worst thing you found? It's a hard one to answer for the UCLA law school professor. There were so many terrible conditions he and his students uncovered on their foray into the Golden State's public schools: the Santa Rosa school that was so cold in winter, children had to wear mittens to take notes; ninth graders at a Los Angeles school who had no textbooks; the huge numbers of uncredentialed teachers throughout the state; rats scurrying across classroom floors in some schools.

Sitting in the quiet living room of his rustic home in Los Feliz, Blasi finally answers. "There is a regulation that says schools have to have adequate heat and air conditioning, but if you look through all of California law, it only applies to traffic schools. If a kid is in a classroom that's 104 degrees, there is no regulation on the books that says that's wrong."

He shakes his head in disgust. Blasi teaches Law 406, Public Policy Advocacy, a clinical seminar in which second- and third-year students, together with public-interest law firms, tackle real cases. The idea is to train students in the dogged legwork of lawyering, but also to engage their sense of justice and to drive public policy. This year's project - Blasi and 12 students spent five months documenting conditions in California public schools - has done just that. The result of their remarkable effort, a report published in May titled Who is Accountable to Our Schoolchildren?, is a stinging indictment of the squalor and bureaucratic indifference they found. Bolstered by more than 100 interviews with parents, students and teachers, the groundbreaking study unmasks a pattern of neglect and decline primarily in poor and minority schools. And yet, by no means is the problem confined there.

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