California Forum

Why the governor’s race is suddenly all about California’s schools

Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, poses for photos with students from Hayward’s Tennyson High School during a stop in his campaign for governor Friday, May 11, 2018, in San Francisco.
Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, poses for photos with students from Hayward’s Tennyson High School during a stop in his campaign for governor Friday, May 11, 2018, in San Francisco. AP

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on educational issues for the upcoming elections.

Underneath the political squabbles over education – the calls for and against testing, accountability, weakened teacher tenure, charter schools – lie two fundamentally different views of why low-income black and Latino students aren’t doing well in school. And those differences have more to do with the campaign to elect a new governor than you might imagine.

Teachers unions and their supporters say poverty and lack of mental stimulation in homes and neighborhoods is at fault. You know those international tests where the United States always comes out looking bad? The U.S. ranking would rise substantially, this side rightly points out, if similar numbers of students taking the tests in other countries were impoverished. It’s disadvantage, not lackluster education, that makes the schools look bad, this philosophy goes.

Vast amounts of money seeking to direct your vote come from groups that seek ascendancy in just one aspect of state governance. They want to win the great school debate, for four or probably eight years, and do it through the governor.

The champions of charter schools and standardized test scores don’t deny the heavy influence of poverty but think schools could do a much better job of overcoming those disadvantages if they would try harder, innovate more and make schools a little like private businesses, especially when it comes to employees – the teachers. Why have we allowed situations where schools of poverty are staffed by the least experienced educators, or those whom the other schools don’t want? Or worse, by a series of revolving substitutes? Why can’t we fire the really terrible ones? (And if you are a parent, chances are your kid has experienced at least one really terrible teacher who remains despite years of parent complaints.)

The teachers unions retort that a more comprehensive solution is needed that addresses the deep roots of poverty. By the time poor children from uneducated families show up in school, they’re already severely behind in vocabulary, which is the keenest predictor of academic success. In fact, a 2015 study showed that vocabulary at age 2 predicts kindergarten achievement. Schools are being used as scapegoats, they say, by a society that doesn’t want to take on the heavy expense of giving all children a more even start in life. And if schools are being asked to make up for that cheapness, they need much better funding.

First, say the reformers, show us that you’re making wise use of the money you have, because too much money has been spent on supposedly promising education programs that brought about no improvement. (Although a dozen years under the reform-supported but poorly designed No Child Left Behind Act didn’t perform any educational miracles, either.)

This argument will probably never be resolved. How can it be, when both sides have it right to a certain extent? It’s unfair to expect schools to make up for five formative years in which opportunity is wildly uneven, but for too long, schools were lackadaisical about the needs of black and Latino students. And discrimination in schools has played a heinous role, with those same groups of students routinely guided to vocational tracks instead of toward college. An African-American acquaintance tells the story of how hard her parents had to battle the Hartford, Conn., schools to get her into college track; she ended up as a successful Dartmouth College grad.

These are key distinctions in the race for governor this year, even more than in the campaign for state Superintendent of Public Instruction. The money aligns in the same way for both: labor is spending for Tony Thurmond for schools, and Gavin Newsom for governor. Billionaires bent mainly on support for charter schools are spending heavily on Marshall Tuck and recently came to the rescue of Antonio Villaraigosa, who had been lagging in most of the polls. Those are the only two Democrats to have a significant showing in the polls, and this being California – and the Republican candidates being especially unqualified for the job – probably Newsom or Villaraigosa will take the reins from Jerry Brown.

When (or if) you’re paying attention to campaign ads, it’s worth keeping in mind that the big-money battle over schools has now infiltrated the campaign for governor. You can debate the bullet train, homelessness, zoning laws and redevelopment all you like. But vast amounts of money seeking to direct your vote come from groups that seek ascendancy in just one aspect of state governance. They want to win the great school debate, for four or probably eight years, and do it through the governor, who has far more authority over school policy than the state superintendent, whose job is mainly administrative.

Early in his campaign, Villaraigosa threw a quick sop to his backers by saying he’d push to make mayoral control of schools possible in California. It’s something he tried to get as mayor of Los Angeles, but courts determined that mayoral control would flout the state Constitution. Mayoral control hasn’t generally failed in the cities where it’s been tried, but it hasn’t been a resounding success. California can live without it.

Unsurprisingly, Villaraigosa has emerged as a major supporter of charter schools, which have often done a terrific job of educating students whose nearest traditional public schools weren’t where most of us would want our kids. But charter schools also run on different rules that make it easier to succeed. Most district-run schools have to take all students within their attendance boundaries, while most charter schools run by lottery, which means parents have made a conscious choice to sign up for them. By definition, they are involved and committed. And there’s no getting around the fact that the presence of charter schools has drained money, sometimes significant money, from school districts.

It’s disappointing to hear Villaraigosa, who has generally staked out territory as an education innovator, fall back on old tropes.

Newsom, in contrast, has carved out unusual territory on the subject. He aims to erase some of the educational inequality that occurs even before preschool, with programs for infants and toddlers. That would largely consist of home visits that encourage verbal interaction between parents and their very young children, as well as books, songs and creative play that would build vocabulary from the ground up, as well as develop critical thinking skills. Advice on nutrition and exercise would be helpful as well.

It’s a clever tactic. Newsom manages to avoid the whole school-accountability debate, while pleasing teachers who have said all along that the problem lies not with the schools but the parents.

But this is also one of the more inventive and useful ideas right now. Instead of creating more institutions, Newsom’s proposal would strengthen families, not only making the most of crucial stages of child development but involving parents from the start in their children’s intellectual blossoming. It’s one of the less expensive ways to overcome early-childhood inequities. (Though it should be piloted before it becomes yet another well-intentioned idea that might lead us nowhere.)

If there’s one thing the era of school reform has taught us, it’s that we have believed too much in magical solutions. Improving schools is hard and incremental work. Newsom’s proposal wouldn’t revolutionize education, but it does plumb territory that we have ignored for too long. Studies continually strengthen our understanding of how important those earliest years are, and we continually ignore the evidence. It’s a better idea than hashing over the 20-year-old arguments that haven’t made nearly as much difference as hoped.

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.