School Reform: Why It’s So Hard
By Peter Schrag
Listening to even the best people in California’s school reform discussions doesn’t leave much clarity about the direction our money-starved education system school go or much confidence that things will get perceptibly better any time soon.
Many of those good people know what’s needed. It’s just that they don’t all know the same thing, or don’t know it at the same time. That much at least was apparent once again at last Wednesday’s Sacramento forum on school finance sponsored by PPIC, the Public Policy Institute of California.
What they agreed on was that the fixes of the last thirty or forty years – what state School Board Michael Kirst called “the historical accretion” of programs – wasn’t working. It’s become, someone said, “the Winchester Mystery House” of school finance, rooms added willy-nilly to solve one or another problem.
Neither the policy makers nor the reformers are entirely – or maybe even mostly – to blame. In a state that now ranks in the bottom ten nationwide in school spending, and among the lowest in the ratio of teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians per pupil there’s a long list of suspects. When a questioner at the PPIC forum asked what we mostly needed, someone stage-whispered, “more, more, more.”
But in a culture that must rank among the world’s leaders in anti-intellectualism, and a society whose citizens can’t make up their own minds about what they really want from their schools – about standards, about testing, about social promotion, about evolution, and about a thousand other things – money is hardly the only problem. “Money matters,” Sen. Joe Simitian said, “but it matters more if you spend it wisely.”
The current fashion, at least at the State Board and in the office of Gov. Jerry Brown, has too main elements:
(1) Replacing the plethora of categorical state funding streams – the biggest is class size reduction – with a “weighted student funding formula” where every district gets a basic amount per student and additional money for each low income student and every English learner – plus more for districts with high concentrations of such students. When some districts and other school interests complained that the formula was treating them unfairly, the formula was revised to reduce the extra funding that would be provided for poor and immigrant kids. Here again, the driver wasn’t any assessment of educational need, it was pure politics.
(2) More local control combined with local accountability under which the state would replace its detailed monitoring of input with measures of outputs.
But the problem, as Catherine Lhamon a veteran civil rights lawyer at the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel Law Center, pointed out, is how to guarantee that the locals provide adequate resources – good teachers, books, decent facilities and all the rest -- to schools with the poorest children and others without the political clout to secure them.
Waiting until a district fails to deliver in measured student achievement is to consign yet another generation to failure. Just a few days ago, we learned that the state had reneged on the promises it made years ago when it settled another suit brought on behalf of poor and minority kids.
The fact that the governor has been blocking the further development of the state’s educational data system doesn’t do much for confidence in either the ability or the willingness of the state to hold the locals accountable. Nor is there yet any clear idea of what the state would do when the locals don’t perform. We’ve never known before, and we don’t know now.
To make school improvement still more complicated – for schools and teachers, for kids, for parents—is the shift to the national common core standards and the new testing system that comes with them. As a long-term pedagogical principle, common core, with its shift from fact-based and formulaic learning to understanding, analysis and creativity is long overdue.
But making the transition, doing it within the next year or two as the state is committed to do, and to do it at a time when school spending is being cut, when teachers are being laid off and the teaching force is already demoralized, and when the state expects the locals to buy the necessary materials, is not quite a sick joke, but close to it.
The “historical accretion” Kirst talks about is the result of the long-term failure of local districts, responsive as they always are to pressure from influential parents and other interest groups, unions among them, to allocate funds accordingly. It’s how we built that Winchester Mystery House.
Given the special distrust of state government, local control always makes for an appealing political slogan. But we have a long history during which local control – in southern school segregation, in school funding, in the drawing of school attendance zones, in the assignment of teachers to the nicest, brightest, newest schools, and in a host of other decisions, favored the privileged and short-changed poor and minority kids.
Maybe this time it will be different, but there’s little yet in place that provides much confidence that it will. Jerry Brown has never been averse to the hair shirt. But almost always, it’s the poorest kids who will have to wear the hairiest shirts.
P.S. Given all that, would it be better if we preserved the dismal status quo by passing Gov. Jerry Brown’s inadequate tax hike in November – and thus deferred for maybe five years any chance for anything better? Or would the catastrophe following defeat of Brown’s initiative finally wake the voters up? It’s not an easy decision.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in
the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and
columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost:
California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High
Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his archived columns here.