The California Influencer Series

‘Invest and prioritize’: What to do about California schools

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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California Influencers this week answered the question: What can California schools do to improve their national rankings?

Ashley Swearengin, President & CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation

The single most important thing we can do to improve opportunities for California schoolchildren is to stop focusing just on catching up and instead focus on leapfrogging into the 21st century. We’ve got to allow for, and incentivize, a complete re-thinking of the purpose and structure of school. Local educators and education systems need the flexibility to adapt a rigid 20th century school model that has remained largely unchanged for more than 100 years.

Consider how much is changing. Our students are coming with ever demanding issues based on socio-economic status, language needs, etc. The workplace of tomorrow is changing rapidly and dramatically. The need for advanced education is skyrocketing; and the skills required in this new working world extend well beyond, but are inclusive of, reading and math. Yet, most of our schools – whether district-run or charter-run – are still based on a school mode that separates students by age, perceived ability and subject matter. Our next Governor must be willing to re-focus on, not just improving, but on transforming. Our communities and our children, are depending on it.

Gray Davis, Governor of California, 1999-2003

The most important thing we can do to help children perform better in school is to meaningfully engage their parents in the child’s education. A parent is a child’s first teacher. When parents makes clear that school matters, it will matter to the child. If every parent could spend just one hour a month at school, that would demonstrate to children the importance of learning.

Abby Porth, Executive Director of Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco

One need not invent new solutions to improve academic opportunity for low income and English language learner students in California. We have always known that small class size coupled with credentialed, well supported and enthusiastic teachers is the way to ensure that students, particularly those who need added attention, are able to achieve their academic potential. The challenge is to California’s elected officials: will they take the brave steps necessary to lead Californians in supporting increased spending for quality public education, in which small class size and increased teacher pay and professional development are a priority? Until California voters insist that our per pupil spending is on par with that of other states, we will continue to see wide achievement gaps for low income and English language learners, increased flight from public to private education, and that California is not adequately preparing its diverse young population to participate in its economy.

Tom Campbell, Professor of Law and Professor of Economics at Chapman University

Give parents the choice to send their children to better schools. For those with low incomes, provide tuition vouchers. Learn from the difference between levels of education: competition among American colleges and universities has produced the finest higher education system in the world, but monopoly by public schools at the K-12 levels has failed.

Eric Bauman, Chair of the California Democratic Party

Every child deserves a high-quality education – no matter what zip code they live in. And the secret is in the classroom itself. We can adopt materials, get new technology or have the latest new-fangled approach. But, if we don’t recruit and retain the best quality teachers, it is all for naught. Attracting the best and the brightest is tough because many can’t afford to live in the communities in which they teach. The toughest schools are often the ones with less resources and they leave after a few years. We must make the profession attractive and we have to treat teachers like professionals. And we lost a great program when we phased out Class Size Reduction. The teachers, the parents and the kids all benefited from the one on one instruction and personal touch.

Jon Fleischman, Publisher of the FlashReport

California policy makers cannot have real conversations about needed education reforms in the Capitol because, frankly, the California Teachers Association is such a dominant political force and many legitimate reforms are strongly opposed by the CTA. School choice. Charter schools. Teacher Accountability. Decentralizing decision making. Meaningful parental engagement and input. All are valid ideas that, if raised by a legislator, bring the wrath of the state’s most powerful public employee union. What is in the best interests of educating children is not going to mirror what is in the best interests of the CTA.

Bonnie Castillo, Executive Director of California Nurses Association

Ensure funding for proper staffing, lower class size, invest and prioritize public schools over charter schools. In addition, we should adopt robust workplace violence standards like what we just achieved in hospitals to ensure the health and safety of our children, teachers, school employees, and the public. Finally, protecting the collective voice and rights of teachers is critical. California should take steps to end the anti-union, anti-worker attacks on public school teachers which undermines their ability to advocate for quality education for their students. Universal, quality education, like universal healthcare, are the fundamental building blocks of a humane, civil society.

Jon Coupal, President of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

The single most important thing we can do to improve California’s place in national rankings of education quality is to lessen the inordinate political power wielded by public employee unions that represent special interests. Fortunately, the United States Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME took a big step in that direction on our behalf by prohibiting the involuntary exaction of union dues from those who don’t want to be represented by a union.

For decades, CTA has stymied even the most modest of educational reforms, including the ability of school boards to fire bad teachers or even teachers who engage in criminal conduct. Californians shouldn’t conflate the interests of students and parents with the interests of unions. Remember the notorious quote from Albert Shanker, a former President of the United Federation of Teachers? “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”

In a comprehensive analysis, Stanford professor David Crane noted that all of the Proposition 30 tax hike on the wealthy – represented as helping education – went to increased school spending on pensions and retiree health care costs.

It is also important to remember that more taxpayer dollars does not correlate with higher test scores. Proposition 13 is frequently blamed for hurting education but California is now spending 30% more on a per student, inflation adjusted basis than we were in the mid-70’s when there was broad agreement that the quality of education in the state was very high.

Kim Yamasaki, Executive Director of Center for Asians United for Self Empowerment

Increase pay for public school teachers, but eliminate tenure. We need to re-incentivize teaching as a profession for our next generation and to ensure we are recruiting teachers from diverse communities. I’ve had countless new and young teachers who are passionate about education talk to me about burnout, poor pay, and an outdated tenure process that does not effectively measure their skills against their potential. We seem to be losing a lot of capable and diverse talent. Especially in working with diverse students with language and cultural competency needs, students learn better when the faculty reflects the diversity of the community. Let’s nurture and develop new teachers and make the salary incentives compelling enough for our educators to always strive to be the best they can be.

John Pérez, Former Speaker of the California Assembly

Our focus on education needs to start earlier, investments in early childhood education have been proven to increase student performance throughout K-12, and makes it more likely that students will go on to pursue advanced degrees and certificates after high school graduation. Having programs that stimulate and spark confidence in young kids is critical in addressing academic success but studies have also shown that early childhood education also helps reduce destructive and problematic behavior in students as they get older.

Pete Wilson, Governor of California, 1991-1999

The single most important thing that we can do to improve opportunities for California school children is to ensure that they are proficient readers by the end of the third grade. If they are not, it will impair all the rest of their learning potential thereafter. It was for this reason that we afforded to school districts a program to reduce class sizes in grades K-3 to achieve individual attention for children learning to read. It was not mandated, but the districts that chose and received funding to reduce ratios of 1 teacher to 20 children found that it was very successful and popular with those teaching and with the parents of those children.

Barbara Boxer, U.S. Senator, 1993-2017

As a product of public schools and as a parent, grandparent and a believer in quality education, i think it’s time to focus on an obvious fact: some children require more attention and more focus. When I was a young mom I volunteered in the San Francisco Mission district to help a few students in a nice atmosphere away from the classroom to bring them up to speed on reading or math assignments identified by the teacher. She was very pleased because it enabled her to work with the rest of the children – the bulk of the class while I gave individualized attention to a few children who needed it. So I believe that we should have, in every classroom,a trained assistant to work with the children on certain subjects where they need individualized attention. More than anything else it will give these children the chance they deserve to keep up and gain confidence. Yes. This idea could include bringing smart, young college graduates into the schools where they can work for a stipend and payments to ease their student loans.

Ron George, Former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court

It is essential that we expand and enhance the education in civics received by our students, in order to enable them to become involved citizens, aware of their rights and responsibilities. This is the most important improvement that we can make in the quality of public school education to help us survive as a functioning, democratic society – whether or not it improves California’s place in national rankings of education quality.

Jim Wunderman, President and CEO of Bay Area Council

As technology and innovation increasingly dominate our economy (and our lives), much attention is rightly focused on better preparing students for careers in these fields through strong science, technology, engineering and math education. Another area that has received far less attention but is no less critical to the future of our state and our ability to solve the many challenges we face is civics education. Civics lies at the very foundation of our self-governance and participatory democracy. It teaches us about the concepts, history and institutions that make up our democracy, but it also teaches us about what it means to be a citizen, about the importance of civil discourse and compromise and the imperative for being informed and engaged in our political process. There are many examples in the world today that suggest we badly need to revitalize civics education in our schools. Voter participation has been abysmally low. Our politics has become hyper partisan, divided and divisive. Attacks on our free press – one of the most important instruments of an open society – have escalated. A 2014 report by the California Task Force on Civic Learning identified some of the troubling trends in California and across the nation that illustrate the erosion of our civic society. It also offers many good recommendations for restoring focus on civics education in our schools. As we work to ready students for the future workforce, let’s not forget that we also must educate students to be good citizens.

Michele Siqueiros, President of Campaign for College Opportunity

Put students interest first. Every policy and budget decision should relate back to how it will improve student learning, prepare more students for college, and close racial gaps in California.

Aziza Hasan, Executive Director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership For Change

As my friend Hilda Maldonado, Executive Director of Diversity Learning and Instruction at LAUSD reminds me, it feels awful not to know what’s going on. Feelings of belonging and acceptance are critical to improving our capacity to take in information, to learn and to grow. California needs to invest in dual language programs by continuing our current growth trajectory: over the past five years we have increased dual language programs from 40 to 148 programs, and children of California need and deserve more . By allowing for kids to both learn in their language and in a new language, we build their sense of pride as well as their language skills and fast track them into feeling more competent and able to meet the learning challenges ahead if them. This allows them to be fully seen and celebrated. We all win as children are invited into society as full participants, and as themselves.

Les Simmons, Pastor at South Sacramento Christian Center

We need to focus on the students and communities that we are failing. Start by eliminating implicit bias and cultural incompetency in our schools that pre-determine the student’s success. We must invest in developing highly trained, motivated teachers and administrators that can support all students through their academic careers. In Sacramento, a recent report found a full twenty percent of the district’s total black male student population has received a suspension. It is hard to imagine that this problem is limited within Sacramento. The lack of understanding of a child’s need to learn, emotional issues, and the bias they receive everyday, including inside the classroom, is a true barrier to providing them quality education. Our national rankings will never improve if we don’t meet the students where they are and meet their needs to learn.

Laboni Hoq, Litigation Director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice

To address this issue, we must first tackle the racial achievement gap. Despite the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, that ended the discredited policy of “separate but equal” schools over 50 years ago, our schools continue to be highly racially segregated. This is due, in large part, to lingering impacts of housing segregation policies, which kept neighborhoods – and schools within them – racially isolated. Despite evidence that the racial achievement gap lessens when schools are integrated, efforts to do so have been stymied by Supreme Court cases that limit such efforts to counterring “de jure” – or official – racial discrimination, as opposed to “de facto” – or lived experience – of these communities, including the racial achievement gap. This gap exists most prominently amongst our most racially segregated communities – African American, and more recent Latino and Asian immigrants. Despite this troubling backdrop, we should be proud that the California Constitution and certain federal laws still allow us to fulfill the promise of Brown. We must continue to defend the right to equal education for all. In a state as diverse as California, we simply cannot afford to turn our backs on yet another generation of children who will be our future leaders.

Daniel Zingale, Senior Vice President of The California Endowment

Invest in the health of students and healthier school environments. Learning and health are two sides of the same coin. Academic performance improves in schools where health and well being are prioritized. Schools that offer health services see GPA and graduation rates rise, and suspension rates fall.

Carl Guardino, President and CEO of Silicon Valley Leadership Group

Beyond the presence of caring and engaged parent(s) at home, the single greatest indicator of a student’s success is a high quality and qualified teacher in the classroom. California must double-down on its commitment to public school teachers. In high-cost California, supporting teachers must include sufficient compensation that sends a message of the vital role teachers play, but must also include a school environment that helps teachers - and their students - thrive. Concurrently, teachers are like all professionals - accountable for their actions that drive results in the classroom. When we put our kids first, which includes teachers that are valued, appreciated, and accountable, results will follow.

Catherine Lew, Principal and Co-Founder of The Lew Edwards Group

California is the world’s fifth largest economy. Our Golden State is the home of tech innovation and Silicon Valley. Yet despite this wealth, California ranks near the BOTTOM for per pupil spending, nationally. This shameful situation means our children and teachers don’t have access to instructional supplies; class sizes continue to increase; teachers and faculty don’t earn enough to live where they teach; and after-school, art and music programs are luxuries that many districts can’t afford. We all know families who have literally moved across the country for quality public schools elsewhere. A dramatic increase in funding to support our K-14 public school districts and college systems is needed to make a statement that we are ready to truly invest in accessible quality education for the next generation of Californians. Let’s put our money where our mouth is and make that commitment.

Cassandra Pye, President of California Women Lead, and Founder and CEO of 3.14 Communications

The short answer is, of course, money. But as we’ve heard again this week, a significant layer of any additional education funding, now and into the foreseeable future, will be skimmed off the top to cover our pension liabilities; some districts are already cutting programs and staff in order to cover their obligations. That said, making significant improvements in academic achievement for kids in poverty and kids of color (especially males), universal preschool, increasing pay and providing incentives to make teaching more appealing all comes with a hefty price tag.

Allan Zaremberg, President and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce

California has the most diverse school-aged population in America. This requires local communities to develop methods that best fit the needs of their local school population. There are common themes that the state could encourage regardless of the demographics: the training and promoting of principals and teachers who are on the front lines of successful education programs. The state can ensure that children have the fundamentals to succeed by ensuring that no child should matriculate past sixth grade until they can read, write and do math at a sixth grade level. Without the elementary school fundamentals being established, we are placing our children in an impossible situation to meet the expectations of the remainder of their education experience. How we can accomplish that could take a variety of ways, it could be testing, could be a contract between the family and the school, but we shouldn’t put our children in a position to fail without giving them the fundamentals in their early years of education.

Angie Wei, Chief of Staff of California Labor Federation

Increase per-pupil spending. Investing in our kids’ future must be a top priority for California from kindergarten through higher education, meaning the state must ensure the revenue necessary to fund education at that level is available.

Mike Madrid, Principal of Grassroots Lab

Focus on student outcomes and accountability and build an education system to achieve the best in both.

Linda Ackerman, President of Marian Bergeson Excellence in Public Service Series

We need to return to the basic academics, including reading, writing and mathematics! We need to be raising standards not lowering them. We should not be sending young people into colleges and universities unprepared, where many fail. We have students graduating from high school who have to take remedial courses in college, that should be a giant eye opening indicator of the failure of our K-12 educational system in California.

Mindy Romero, Founder and Director of the California Civic Engagement Project at USC

We must adequately invest in our struggling educational system, providing more support for student centered approaches such as smaller class sizes, in-class special education aids and school psychologists. California continues to be in the bottom fifth of all states in per-pupil spending, according to the California Budget and Policy Center. We are also consistently ranked near the bottom on student performance. Our children, particularly our children of color and those from low-income families, struggle to learn. Yet by the investments we make, every day we show them that they are not our priority. We choose to invest in prisons and other programs that treat the results of failing to educate kids. Instead, we should be investing in schools to help young people feel prepared and motivated to achieve their dreams. And we should make sure that those who do make it to college do not find themselves burdened with obscene amounts of debt. We are the fifth largest economy in the world. We need to push for sustainable ways to counter the growing divide between the haves and have-nots. For this, education is key. Investing significantly and equitably in our school systems will improve the lives of all Californians.

Rob Stutzman, Founder & President of Stutzman Public Affairs

California has premier quality higher ed institutions. One reason is because they compete against private institutions. K-12 can be improved by devolving power away from bureaucrats and unions and empowering principals with the tools to succeed on site. Then those principals are more accountable to parents. How do you this? Break up behemoth districts like LAUSD, let principals discipline their employees and allow for more charter schools. Create competition. Let consumer choice do more to influence outcomes.

Donna Lucas, CEO and President of Lucas Public Affairs

Invest more in early learning. The first five years of a child’s life are vitally important. They’re the foundation that, to a large extent, shapes a child’s future health, happiness, growth development and achievement at school.

Recent research confirms that the first five years are particularly important for the development of the child’s brain. Early experiences provide the base for the brain’s organizational development and functioning through life. Those years have a direct impact on how well children develop learning skills as well as healthy social relationships and emotional abilities.

Children learn faster during these early years than at any other time in life.

In addition, we need to give parents the tools and support they need for success in helping their children learn.

Kristin Olsen, Former minority leader in the California Assembly, and Stanislaus County Supervisor

To improve our standing in national education rankings, California must ensure access to quality instruction for all students regardless of zip code, background, or socio-economic status. To do this, the State must give teachers and districts the resources and tools to be successful and must allow the dismissal of poor performing educators so that both teachers and administrators are held accountable to high standards. California’s leaders should empower all school systems to thrive – traditional public, charter public, private, and home-based systems – because not all students learn best in the same type of system; one-size-fits-all approaches to education simply don’t work and are failing California kids, teachers, and parents. California’s future economic strength depends on our ability to improve our schools and provide robust and varied learning environments in which students can develop the knowledge and skills to be successful in school, in the workplace, and in life.

Cesar Diaz, Legislative and Political Director of State Building and Construction Trades Council

For over a decade, the State Building Trades and the California Manufacturers Association have led a coalition that lobbies for career technical education programs in our public schools. These programs provide relevance in learning and hands on skills while exposing students to good paying careers in manufacturing or the construction trades. For many students these courses actually change their mind about dropping out.

We must capitalize on the reinvestment in career tech programs and change the perception that promoting these programs prevent students from attending college.

This perception has led to an almost complete erosion of programs such as automotive, carpentry or machining from our state’s schools.

As a result, the average age of an apprentice has increased from 19 during the 1980’s to 27 in 2018. We believe schools need more funding to improve the quality of these programs which will connect students to the jobs of today and tomorrow.

David Townsend, Founder of TCT Public Affairs

We must reduce the cost of tuition for the UC and State University systems and make community colleges free to all California students. We will increase the strength of our economy by giving all students a chance to be productive...and not saddle them with huge student debt.

Jim Newton, Lecturer of Public Policy at University of California, Los Angeles

Authority needs to be properly distributed Teachers need better pay and less of a role setting education policy. Districts need the flexibility to experiment with charters and other innovative schools. Principals need authority over their schools.

Eloy Oakley, Chancellor of California Community Colleges

Create an accountability system that everyone can understand

Bill Burton, Managing Director of SKDKnickerbocker in Los Angeles

The biggest barriers to improving our schools in California are the politicians in Sacramento and around the state that protect the status quo above any common sense proposal to make our schools better. There are special interests that hold us back in a way that is not fair to the kids who depend on their leaders to do better.

Jessica Levinson, Professor of Law at Loyola Law School

Recruit and retain talented teachers and administrators. We do not value public school teachers and administrators, and therefore it is difficult to attract qualified and dedicated teachers and administrators who wish to stay in the profession for their careers. Teachers are administrators are the single-most important part of a child’s education.

Harmeet Dhillon, Republican National Committee, California, and Partner in Dhillon Law Group

Parents or guardians must be allowed the freedom of school choice in order to ensure that their children have the best possible chance to get a high-quality education needed to succeed in our increasingly competitive world. Unions and their favored Democratic politicians consistently block innovations such as charter schools, vouchers, home schooling, and merit-based compensation for teachers. We should also eliminate the short tenure system (as little as two years in some areas), and make it easier to fire bad teachers. Good teachers should be paid more, and bad ones let go. More of our educational resources need to go into paying good teachers, and less into bloated administration.

Maria Mejia, Los Angeles Director, Gen Next

In order to improve our students’ academic performance, we need to change our institutional objectives.

Schools continue to be places where students go to receive information, when what we actually need are schools where students are going to be trained, both in the core competencies needed to make them contributing, self-sustaining adults but also in a range of disciplines and trades, and that give students the room to pursue their own crafts and passions as well as their individual competitive advantages.

School choice, investing in teacher training and our ability to provide blended learning models that are tailored to our diverse student and workforce needs are all important parts of this conversation.

Madeleine Brand, Radio host with KCRW Los Angeles

More per-pupil funding

Dorothy Rothrock, President of California Manufacturers & Technology Association

California manufacturers already struggle to fill open positions, and the nationwide “skills gap” of unfilled jobs is estimated to reach 2 million by the year 2025. Sadly, the state is not doing enough to fill the pipeline of workers manufacturers will need in the years to come.

Part of the problem is a public education system that has been neglecting career and technical education, or “CTE”, for many decades. In 1987 nearly 74 percent of California high school students participated in at least one CTE class, but by 2009 this had fallen to a paltry 29 percent.

We know that the real-world skills learned in CTE programs are not only good for employers, they also reduce drop-out rates, encourage post-secondary certifications, improve college scores, and open doors to careers that are ladders to the middle class.

Some states will compete for new manufacturing investments by offering generous tax incentives. While helpful, that strategy won’t win unless they also have a skilled workforce.

California must restore robust and modern CTE at every middle and high school campus to keep us on the short list for new manufacturing investments and middle-class jobs to power the state’s economy.

Antonia Hernandez, President and CEO of California Community Foundation

Focus on low performing schools. reward teachers who are achieving results. adopt standards to evaluate teacher performance. invest more in public education

Astrid Ochoa, Election administration and voting advocate

The single most important thing we can do to improve our place in national rankings of educational quality is to continue our march toward equity of educational opportunities for all communities across California. All children deserve access to quality education regardless of their family’s income level.

Matt Barreto, Professor of Chicano Studies at UCLA; Co-founder of Latino Decisions

California has a two-tiered and segregated education system that has to be reformed so that all children in the state get an equally strong K-12 educational experience to prepare them all equally well, regardless of what county or zip code they live in. Currently we have too many underfunded, under-resourced inner city schools that serve predominantly Latino and African American students. This is unacceptable. Every single child must be guaranteed the same access to a quality education, to ensure they have the same level playing field in applying for colleges and universities. Our school funding formulas should be reevaluated to find ways to better share the wealth of our state and reduce the disparities between rich and poor districts. 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. They should not have to face larger class sizes and less arts and sports programs because of their zip code. California legislators need to take a hard look at what can be done to make sure all public schools are funded equally.

Timothy White, Chancellor of the California State University

We should focus on bringing individualized learning to scale and meet students where they are, similar to what many in the medical field have found successful.

At Cal State, educators work with students and their families to develop a customized plan for academic success – one that takes into consideration the student’s specific needs, interests and background and life’s realities. Broadly adopting this approach would see similar success for students across California’s education system.

National rankings are too often influenced by who is excluded. California should lead in who we include, support, challenge and guide to earn a high school diploma and university degree.

Monica Lozano, President and CEO of College Futures Foundation

Rather than think about national rankings, we need to make a commitment as a state that all students receive the education they need to succeed, that they are able to complete their studies in a timely fashion and at an affordable cost. Creating student-centered integrated pathways across educational segments will improve time to degree, graduation rates and close equity gaps.

Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California

The issue is not so much about national rankings but whether we are adequately preparing young people for the future. Are they ready for higher education or to enter the work force? Teachers are the key ingredient here and we need to invest more in their compensation and ensure that they have the resources, such as technology, necessary to fulfill their mission.

Rosalind Hudnell, Former Vice President of Human Resources at Intel Corp and Former Chair & President of Intel Foundation

Money. How the money is spent, for what and to whom must reflect a desire to improve student outcomes. There is no magic wand. Until we ensure that the majority of funding goes to resources that touch children directly like teachers, facilities, and learning materials no amount of new policy, focusing on teacher accountability versus administrator accountability or more task forces will not make the difference. I spent an entire business career working to support public education with private funds. At the end of the day, it’s time to be candid and transparent with how money is being spent. Challenge the pay scales of EVERYONE. Challenge every dollar that is being spent on things and people that do not directly engage with student learning. Recognize that our roll back on the needed 20:1 classroom was all about money. Children can’t learn effectively in classrooms that are too large for any teacher to adequately teach. We keep asking the same question. It’s time for a different answer.

Renata Simril, President and CEO of LA84 Foundation

Structural budget reforms that prioritize K-12 public education (and which bring back and funds enrichment programs, PE- five days a week, as well as school based sports programming). California is the 5th largest economy in the world and we are the most expensive state in the union; yet we spend about $10,200 per pupil on K-12 public education compared to $75,000 in per prisoners spending, (a number that is expected to rise to over $80,000 per inmate based on Governor Jerry Brown’s 2018-19 budget). Understanding that California’s school district relies heavily on state, rather than local funds and the state spends a sizable portion of its budget (28%) on K-12 education; it either sufficient nor efficient. Budgets are a reflection of our values and priorities. We owe it to the 6.2 million children in the K-12 system to provide them, their families and their teachers with the resources they need to build a bridge to a brighter future.

Manuel Pastor, Director of Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California

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. 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 (e.g., “my grandfather learned English all on his own so we don’t need language support for kids . . .”).

So the single most important thing really is to turn to the research and experts rather than just our experience and anecdotes. When you do that, the area that seems to pop up as having the most impact is early childhood education, including supporting parents in promoting early learning.

Kim Belshé, Executive Director of First 5 LA

Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. For too many years, California has weathered annual cycles of embarrassment about our lagging national performance in education, as well as poor scores by low income children and English learners. Our persistent achievement gap cannot be a “surprise” when California systemically has failed to invest in our babies and toddlers’ learning until they “enter” school. 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.

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, and that early learning programs show a societal return on investment that far outpaces most educational interventions or remediation afterwards.

Borrowing from Frederick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” California must prioritize the important work of building strong children, and building them smart and strong from the start.

Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Professor of Law at University of California, Berkeley School of Law

Dramatically increase expenditures for education, especially in disadvantaged areas.

Adama Iwu, Vice President for State Government Relations & Community Outreach with Visa; Co-Founder of We Said Enough

Too many children in California come to school unfed, unsupported and under privileged. 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. To improve their opportunities and California’s educational outcomes we need to identify and meet the needs of young students early, and develop systems and processes that support their ability to learn and succeed. This means that policy makers must promote equity-focused policies that prioritize early childhood, and reduce the effect that poverty, malnutrition and toxic stress have on young children’s lives.

Roger Salazar, President of Alza Strategies

This is a question that California has struggled with as its population has grown. In the past, top-down approaches have not worked because the focus was on short-term fixes rather than making long-term lasting changes. California is taking a new approach that empowers local stakeholders and provides them with support that is more responsive to the needs of the students in individual districts. California is too big and too diverse for one-size-fits-all approaches – each district has distinct issues that require unique approaches. Local education communities know best how to address local needs and, as a State, we should support those efforts.

Jonathan Keller, President of California Family Council

California is too big for top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches. Our state is incredibly diverse, and we should recognize that in our educational policy. To improve our student outcomes, we should devolve power from Sacramento and instead encourage more local control by each individual school district. We should trust parents and teachers, not state bureaucrats.

Jim Boren, Executive Director of the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust; Former Executive Editor of The Fresno Bee

The single most important thing we can do to improve education quality is to get rid of “neighborhood schools.” The concept of neighborhood schools locks students from poor neighborhoods into schools with inadequate resources, while ensuring that schools in upscale neighborhoods have everything they need. Some argue that open enrollment allows students to attend schools of their choice, but that is an opportunity substantially limited by transportation issues and the financial resources of parents.

In a state as diverse as California, having the quality of education determined by the Zipcode you live in guarantees unequal education. 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.

As long as schools in the same community are not of the same quality, little will change. The neighborhood school concept stands in the way of high-quality education.

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

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