The California Influencer Series

California schools aren’t exactly leading the nation. What should we do about it?

We asked California Influencers a question from a reader: Why is our education system failing to produce graduates ready to enter the work force?
We asked California Influencers a question from a reader: Why is our education system failing to produce graduates ready to enter the work force? Getty Images/iStockphoto

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The California Influencers Series

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Pay teachers better. Get rid of the least effective ones. Tell schools to make class sizes smaller. Let schools make their own decisions. Put parents in charge. Put teachers in charge. Go back to basics. Do something new. Just do…something.

There are as many different ideas on how to fix California’s schools as there are schools in California — or as there are California schoolchildren. The only area of agreement seems to be that we can do better.

As one Sacramento Bee reader said as part of the Bee’s “Your Voice” feature, the online tool capturing suggestions for this election-year conversation, “Why is our education system failing to produce graduates ready to enter the work force?”

National assessments disagree on precisely how California’s public schools rank against other states, but none put California in the top tier of educational achievement.

USC Professor Manuel Pastor, one of the Bee’s California Influencers, offered his analysis on why consensus on a fix is so difficult.

“One of the most challenging policy issues for California is education – not just because it is a difficult and complex area of work but also because so many of us have an opinion without any real knowledge,” he said. “On the economy or immigration or climate or other arenas, we tend to think experts might have something to add — but on education, so many of us figure that because we went to school ourselves we can just blurt out whatever we think…”

Further complicating the challenge for lawmakers is the wide range of educational experiences that California voters bring to the debate. The state’s geographic, demographic and economic diversity, coupled with its sheer size, make it impossible to rely on a single set of remedies.

California Insiders from across the ideological spectrum agreed that uniform solutions directed from Sacramento were doomed to failure.

“California is too big and too diverse for one-size-fits-all approaches — each district has distinct issues that require unique approaches,” said longtime Democratic strategist Roger Salazar. “Local education communities know best how to address local needs and, as a state, we should support those efforts.”

“To improve our student outcomes, we should devolve power from Sacramento and instead encourage more local control by each individual school district,” agreed Jonathan Keller, president of the California Family Council. “We should trust parents and teachers, not state bureaucrats.”

Or as Rosalind Hudnell, former Chair and President of the Intel Foundation, put it, “There is no magic wand…”

But many Influencers also cautioned that local control has its limits, and that funding inequities between schools in wealthy and poor communities often lead to similarly dissimilar educational opportunities and outcomes.

“In a state as diverse as California, having the quality of education determined by the zip code you live in guarantees unequal education,” said former Fresno Bee Executive Editor Jim Boren, now Executive Director of Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust. “It’s no accident that real estate agents all over California can tell you what the ‘best schools’ are without looking at test scores. We must do better than be limited by a 1950s strategy of assigning children to schools by where they live.”

“Students who grow up in working-class and lower income households should not be punished with less access to AP courses, new course books, or newer facilities,” agreed UCLA Professor Matt Barreto, founder of the Latino Decisions polling and research firm. “…California legislators need to take a hard look at what can be done to make sure all public schools are funded equally.”

Other Influencers focused on early childhood, advocating that resources to directed to the years before elementary school.

“Too many children in California come to school unfed, unsupported and underprivileged. By the time they reach third grade, some are already so far behind their peers that they are likely to remain at a disadvantage throughout their lives,” cautioned We Said Enough movement co-founder Adama Iwu.

“To improve their opportunities and California’s educational outcomes we need to identify and meet the needs of young students early….” added Iwu, Visa’s Vice President for State Government Relations and Community Outreach. “This means that policy makers must promote equity-focused policies that prioritize early childhood…”

“An avalanche of research has repeatedly shown that learning begins at birth, that the earliest years set a proper (or improper) foundation for the growing architecture of a child’s brain, that children with quality early education opportunities perform better in K-12 ...” agreed Kim Belshé, executive director of First 5 LA. “… Our leaders must embrace the concept of education as a broader system that helps parents from a baby’s first breath to shouts of congratulations as they earn their college degree.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy.