Public Education—Is anyone in charge here?

We continue with Speak Out California Board Member and Former Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg’s series on the state of public education in California today. In this entry, she examines and explains the veritable stew of players in the education arena—from the state down to the school district and provides her insights into how we’ve gotten into the mess we’re in today….and what we must do to get out of it. As a teacher, Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member, LA City Council Member and Chair of the Assembly Committee on Education during her six years in the California State Assembly, she has a wealth and breadth of experience virtually unparalleled in the current debate on where we must go and how we must go about fixing the education crises in our state.
She continues her comments and insights here:

How Did Public Education in California Get Into This Mess?
If one looks at Education Policy in California, it does not really look coherent, to say the least. Until 1978, and the passage of Proposition 13, most education policy was made by local school districts, of which there are about 1,000 in this state.
But then Proposition 13 passed, and property taxes were not only lowered, but they were no longer the chief funding source of public schools in California. The lowered property taxes were to be collected statewide, and then allocated by the Governor and the legislature. Well, if you read mystery novels, you know that to get to the bottom of things you must “follow the money.”
So now, instead of 1,000 districts, we end up with a de facto state school system. Only now there are a large number of players. The Governo makes policy through his/her budget, and through the legislation that is signed of vetoed. The Governor also appoints the State Board of Education, which makes policy by deciding which books and curriculum will be taught in our schools, at least for grades Kindergarten through 8th. But the State Board of Education appoints the State Curriculum Commission which writes the proposed curriculum guides and tentatively approve the K-8 books in all subjects, which are the only books and materials a district or school can buy with State Textbook funds. Then there is the Secretary of Education who is the Governor’s cabinet member charged with overseeing education policy for the state. This position was ” invented ” by Governor Pete Wilson when “his ” candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction was defeated by Delaine Eastin. And, of course, a policy maker is the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who is elected statewide by ballot. Not done yet, there is also the Senate Education Committee, the Assembly Education Committee, and the Senate and Assembly each has a Budget Sub-Committee. These four committees, their chairs and their staffs all work on legislation which make education policy.
So with all of that, it is no surprise that politics and not research are the keys to education policy in this state. And most of the policy is made by people who were last in a classroom as a student. Where there is any discretion at all, local boards of education in local school districts also make policy. So we have very peculiar policies indeed, and the tendency is to try to run the system ” top down ” (from the State down to the local community). Add to this mix a large variety of economic interests in the form of massive national and international textbook companies, and vendors who sell stuff to school, and construction firms who build and remodel schools. This creates a ” stew ” oflo of ” interested parties ” who heavily lobby the Governor and the legislature for ” policy ” that favors their corporate interests.
Notice, I have not once mentioned teachers, Principals, school based non-teaching employees, students or parents. They are largely left out of the decision making process. Though you will hear lots of noise about the so-called ” too large influence ” of teachers’ unions, I can tell you for a fact they play very little role in setting education policy at the state or local level.
So, our one-size-fits-all, top down strategies for education policy means that the current notion of ” equal education opportunity ” is to treat every one of the six million students in California K-12 public schools exactly the same. And that is the critical problem. We are a diverse state, probably the most diverse state in America. We have students here from all over the world, speaking over 60 different languages. We have students from well- to-do families, and those from moderate working families, and students who are living in dangerous communities and dire poverty. The students need to be the center of the decision-making, and not in name only. So who should make the decisions about education policy?
Let’s look at all the people currently involved, and those who are not:
1. The State should have the responsibility for setting the standards and establishing methods for determining whether or not students are meeting those standards. These standards should be reviewed every 7-10 years, and the review should be done by classroom teachers, curriculum specialists and university academicians. They should do the setting and reviews after parents, teachers, businesspeople and interested members of communities around the state have had an opportunity to say what they want young people to know and for our students to know how to do it by the time they graduate from high school.
The State should set minimum standards for being a teacher. And the State should make sure that every student is educated free from bias or discrimination.
And then, the state should get out of the way, and send as much money as possible to our schools via local school districts, even if that were to mean raising taxes!
2. School districts should see to it that the money they receive from the State is distributed in a way that makes sure that “equal educational opportunity” means that the academic outcomes are equal, which most likely will mean that money is spent based on need, not on formulas that try to send the identical number of dollars per student to each school. The district should also make sure that money spent by local schools follows all required state and federal laws. But the district has the key responsibility for making sure that leadership at the school level is independent, student-centered, and committed to achievement for all students.
3. At the local school level, decisions should be made by teachers and local school site administrators about how best to support students in their efforts to meet or exceed the standards set by the state. There may be only one set of standards, but there should be many paths to reach those standards!
4. Parents should tell teachers everything they can about how their children learn, and what their children find interesting. They should not be expected to make decisions about books and materials unless they find that the material would not be appropriate for their own children in some critical way. They should have input on selection of teaching materials, but the final decision must rest with the teacher. And of course, parents and other community members should be involved in the discussion of what students need to know and to know how to do before graduation.
Textbooks should be reviewed by teachers before the State adopts them, as a method of helping local educators know what the State views as excellent materials. But since there is only one standard, and there are accountability measures a plenty, there should be NO connection between adoption of materials and what schools and districts may buy with State Textbook Funds.
We have way too many cooks “spoiling the pot.” And we have too much time and money wasted on trying to defined ” the correct and shining path” that all must follow to help students meet California’s high standards.
The tasks are easy to describe, and easy to do IF there is the political will to do so: lower class size, based on achievement levels of students: increase per pupil spending to about $15,000 per student per year, and let district’s distribute the money based on need; keep teacher salaries high enough to recruit the ” best and brightest” into teaching; and have local schools make decisions on how to spend their money effectively to teach each student the subjects up the state’s standards.
This is not simplistic, but it is the straight-forward answer to getting public education out of the mess it currently is in. And it represents how Charter Schools are currently treated. But more on Charter Schools next time.