Friday, December 17, 2010

Public Education in California: The Good, the Bad, and the Intriguing

As we debate what to do about the public school, either here in North Carolina or where ever it may be that you live, it can be instructive to keep an eye on what is going on in California.  Not only is that the most populated US state, but it has a history of innovation and experimentation that has swung between the left/liberal and right/conservative perspectives from not quite year to year, but certainly decade to decade.

Let's start with the Bad (I always like to get that out of the way):  California, strapped for revenue due to the  bust in the real estate market and the infamous Proposition 13 that limits their ability to tax, needs to cut $25 BILLION from its state budget.  So Governor-elect Jerry Brown warned the schools that they should expect a reduction of 20-25% in next year's funds.  This year, California spent $49.6 billion on K-12 schools and community colleges, so that could mean a cut of over $12 billion--and that is on top of the $7 billion less they spent this year compared to three years ago.

Problems of that scale help us keep our $3 billion deficit in North Carolina, and warnings of a 5-10% cut in education funds, in perspective.  California's reductions in education spending could amount to more money then North Carolina spent in FY 2009-2010 on NC public K-12 schools, community colleges, and the state university system combined.

So that is a major amount of money to have to cut from the education budget.

But now for the Good:  the incoming Governor, Jerry Brown (yes, the same one who served as Governor in 1975-1983, when he dated Linda Ronstadt and opposed the passage of Proposition 13), seems to have a good head on his shoulders when it comes to education (translation:  it looks like he agrees with me!).  In general, he seems to impose the national trend towards standardization, an emphasis on test scores, and the liberal bias I discussed in yesterday's post towards systematic solutions that derive from data instead of human flexibility, creativity, and differentiation.  Let me quote just a bit from comments he sent to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

What we have at stake are the impressionable minds of the children of America. You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score. You are funding teaching interventions or changes to the learning environment that promise to make public education better, i.e. greater mastery of what it takes to become an effective citizen and a productive member of society. In the draft you have circulated, I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.

I read his comments, and just thought, "You go, Jerry!"  To see his complete statement, read this blog post from Teacher Magazine.

And finally, the Intriguing:  one of the things that outgoing California Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar touts as a major achievement in improving public education is the passage of the so-called "parent trigger" law, which allows a majority of parents in the district of a "failing school" (once again, as determined by test scores) to demand changes in that school.  The parental options include firing the principal and top administrators, converting to a charter school, or even shutting the school down.

On December 7, 2010, the first group of parents activated this new law.  Petitions signed by 62% of parents requested that McKinley Elementary School be converted to a charter school that will be run by Celerity Educational Group, a private company that is running three other schools in California. As can be expected, there is a lot of controversy about this event. The state is investigating charges of harassment and misrepresentation on the part of the petition organizers, the state educators are protesting uninformed intrusion into their long-range plans, and liberals see this as another conservative ploy to turn public schools over to private management. But Schwarzeneggar and other proponents argue that legislation like this is the only way to address the problems of "drop out factories" and a lack of educational alternatives for the urban poor as demonstrated in documentaries such as "Waiting for Superman" (see my blog post for a review of that movie, or read this blog post from The Huffington Post for more info on the parent trigger law).

I have mixed feeling about this law. I think I need to see how it plays out before I can decide if I think it is a good idea or not. But I do believe it is something worth keeping our eyes on as our national debates about what to do with public education continue to dominate much of our civic discussions.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmmmmmmmmm, Interesting. I don't know, maybe Arnold should've stuck to the movies. ;)