Viewpoints

Picking winners in our public education lottery

Californians think we have a system of public education. What we really have is a system for rationing public education.

I got a taste of this in the spring, when I took my 5-year-old son to our local school district offices to determine his educational future. This being California, the determination was made not by any assessment but by a lottery. An administrator pulled names out of hat to fill in our elementary school’s new Mandarin immersion program.

The beginning of the academic year is when we hear fine speeches about how our state is committed to doing the very best for every child. But when you see how educational resources are allocated, California schools leave much to chance.

We do this for two reasons: scarcity and avoidance. Educational resources here are scarce. There is simply more demand for schooling than the state’s wobbly budget system can accommodate. And so we use lotteries and formulas so that our officials can avoid the work of deciding who deserves which school resources, and so that Californians can avoid reckoning with our collective failure to support public education.

By all reliable accounts, there aren’t nearly enough good teachers in our schools. The state offers only 180 days of instruction (when research suggests there should be more than 200 days). And the inadequacy of newer programs and schools offered by some districts in the name of educational choice only underscores the ongoing scarcity. There are simply not enough Advanced Placement classes, charters, magnets or language immersions to meet the demand for high-quality options.

And there’s little hope of trying to do more to meet those needs, since California decouples school funding from educational needs. The state’s Proposition 98 funding formula guarantees only a portion, you might say a ration, of the state budget to schools.

In the absence of funds to meet all our students’ needs, we turn to education’s version of lotteries to allot scarce resources. State law, mirroring federal guidance, directs school districts to use a lottery system for charter school admissions once the number of pupils who want to enroll exceeds the number of spaces. Districts with magnet programs do the same.

California schools are supposed to be equalizers countering the lottery of life. Instead, they emulate it.

But such lotteries are not all that fair. Lotteries tend to favor students whose parents have the time and resources to investigate their local educational possibilities and sign their children up in the first place. (We parents gotta play to win.)

Then there’s a bigger question: Does “random” allocation of educational resources represent justice?

This year, the California Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote, declined to hear challenges that said California doesn’t provide enough school funding or qualified teachers to meet the state constitution’s guarantees of education for all. The court effectively found that shortages of teachers and funding aren’t constitutional problems because the impact was arbitrary.

Justice Mariano-Florentino “Tino” Cuellar dissented, arguing: “Arbitrary selection has been considered a means of rendering a governmental decision legitimate. But where an appreciable burden results – thereby infringing a fundamental right – arbitrariness seems a poor foundation on which to buttress the argument that the resulting situation is one that should not substantially concern us.”

The filmmaker Orson Welles said: “Nobody gets justice. People only get good luck or bad luck.”

He wasn’t wrong. Our parents, where and when we were born, the people we happen to meet, all influence the direction our lives take.

My son got lucky. His name was pulled out of the hat, and he’s enjoying that Mandarin-immersion kindergarten.

But California is not as fortunate. Our schools are supposed to be equalizers countering the lottery of life. Instead, they are emulating it.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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