Millions of California schoolchildren are starting another important academic year. This includes my daughter, a high school senior who along with her classmates has been buffeted by changing policies and budget cycles that have had a profound impact on her education.
While our public schools still lag far behind the national average in per-pupil spending and average class size, since Proposition 30 was passed by voters in 2012, our schools are in much better financial shape with more teachers, counselors and course offerings, and smaller classes.
Yet one of the key questions in the national debate is whether the decisions that affect our kids will be made by parents, teachers and elected representatives. Or will millionaires and billionaires, including Eli Broad and the Waltons, use their enormous wealth to dictate what should happen in our schools and classrooms?
In California, multimillionaire David Welch and his organization Students Matter continue to tie up the courts with lawsuits that he believes will “fix” our schools, but really are about promoting an agenda that focuses on market-driven reforms. Employing a top-notch law firm, Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was behind the Vergara lawsuit that paraded as a civil rights case but at its core was about tying teacher evaluations to test scores. A state appeals court unanimously ruled against the Vergara plaintiffs, and the state Supreme Court announced it will not hear an appeal.
Welch and Students Matter are also behind a lawsuit called Doe v. Antioch, which argues that 13 districts have failed to follow state law they believe compels teacher evaluations to be partly based on student test scores and performance.
While the state education code broadly lays out the parameters on teacher evaluations, more than 1,000 local districts are given discretion on implementation. As a result, districts negotiate agreements with local teacher unions on a whole range of issues, including evaluations. Parents, while not at the bargaining table directly, shape these decisions by electing school board members to represent their interests. If parents want student test scores used to evaluate teachers, then they can elect school board members who agree.
But parents don’t want student test scores driving education policy, and that’s why Welch and Students Matter are wrong yet again. The recent decision by the Obama administration and Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act demonstrates the widespread opposition to overreliance on test scores. The new Every Student Succeeds Act is a sharp departure from the testing mania that has driven the federal government’s education agenda for the last 16 years.
Testing and evaluating kids is a routine part of education, but when testing drives the curriculum, it distorts education. An inordinate amount of time is spent on test-taking and test prep, school curriculum is narrowed and kids are subject to hours of homework, testing and anxiety. The love of learning becomes an afterthought.
If those in the 1 percent are truly interested in our public schools, they can support progressive tax measures that put more money into our schools and listen to education experts who know what it takes to enhance learning – such as robust art and music programs like those in well-funded private schools. My daughter and her schoolmates deserve no less.
Joshua Pechthalt is president of the California Federation of Teachers. He can be contacted at email@example.com.