California Forum

Do California leaders deserve an A or an F on education? A 2018 voter’s guide

Editor’s note: First in an occasional series.

California spends at least 40 percent of its budget on K-12 public schools – as it must, because of Proposition 98. As it should, because there’s nothing more important than creating future generations who will be engaged and contributing citizens, capable of thinking for and supporting themselves.

All very noble, but then, why are we so far from accomplishing that, especially when it comes to the children of poverty and students of color in this state? There’s been some progress, but it has been remarkably uneven, especially when it comes to narrowing the big achievement gap between low-scoring black and Latino students, and their higher-achieving white and Asian counterparts.

California, more than most states, has been bumping around here and there, without a coherent plan for improving schools, and it shows.

For the past 20 years, education policy at the state and federal levels has swung from one extreme to another. For most of that time, it was the age of measurement, with schools held rigidly accountable under the No Child Left Behind Act for meeting certain benchmarks on two annual standardized tests. The law was never remotely realistic; it was badly written and doomed to failure from the start. But it did this much: It made us aware of how badly educated many of our students were, especially black and Latino students from low-income backgrounds.

Blaming teachers became the newest fashion. If we could just fire more of them, the theory went, and link their performance rankings to how well their students did on tests, things would be so much better. This thinking ignored wide swaths of reality: By the time students arrive at kindergarten, those from low-income families already have smaller vocabularies – and vocabulary is the single biggest predictor of future reading skills – and less exposure to enriching activities.

But we also have to be realistic about the years before school reform became such a buzz phrase: Everything wasn’t peachy-keen in the years when teachers closed the classroom door with little outside scrutiny. If it were, California students would be at the top of the heap, a place we haven’t been in a long time. And yes, state schools need more money, but Proposition 13 isn’t the sole factor holding students back. Demographics shifted dramatically, and the schools didn’t shift to meet the change. Schools really can make a difference, and many of them have shown it; they all should make a difference.

Education has become as partisan as any politics, though along less traditional lines. Billionaire philanthropists, with a dislike for unions, are backing charter schools and pushing for fewer protections for teachers and emphasis on quantitative measurement. They’re opposed by the teachers unions. That’s why school candidates tend to hail from the extremes; no one in the reasoned middle can get funding.

Gov. Jerry Brown has ushered in a strange mix of the two sides – as well as good and bad policy. He got Californians to pony up more tax money for public schools, but went cheap and hostile on the University of California. In an ingenious bit of sleight of hand, he managed to overhaul California’s previously misshapen formulas for school funding. Now, more money goes to the students who need it most – those who are poor, or not fluent in English, or in foster care. That’s been important to reform proponents. At the same time, he’s handed unions a major win by providing the extra money without requiring schools to show they’re accomplishing anything with it. What if it doesn’t narrow the achievement gap one iota?

Reform-like, Brown has been a big defender of charter schools, even when the Legislature has proposed reasonable regulations on them. But overall, the state has moved into an era of staunch anti-accountability in recent years. Sometimes, that’s been for good reason; the state wisely bucked the Obama administration when it wanted to tie teacher job evaluations to test scores, an unproven and potentially harmful policy that you don’t hear much about anymore.

But then there’s the state’s confusing new color-coded accountability system that replaces the old (and admittedly problematic) Academic Performance Index. What it really looks like is an anti-accountability system. I could go on and on about that.

And I will. California, more than most states, has been bumping around here and there, without a coherent plan for improving schools, and it shows. So during the weeks before the June election, as the state gets ready to consider the candidates for governor and state superintendent of public instruction, this column will be devoted to what’s been happening, and not happening, in schools, from the growth of charters to the federal government rejecting California’s school plan to inflated graduation rates to the governor’s strange antipathy toward UC.

At some point, California has to decide what it stands for educationally. Me, I vote for sanity over ideology.

Karin Klein is a veteran California journalist and commentator who has written extensively on education. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.