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Dan Walters, CALmatters Commentary

Dan Walters writes for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

The massive “Getting Down to Facts” report on the pluses and minuses of public education in California, issued last month, was a sobering reminder of the stakes involved in how well youngsters are educated.

Generally, California’s six million K-12 students are not doing very well academically, as comparisons with pupils in other states on standardized federal tests have shown, and that’s particularly true of poor and English-learner students.

The study’s findings were underscored last week by the release of the state’s latest “Smarter Balanced” test results. Once again, they told us that the “achievement gap” continues and, as CALmatters education writer Ricardo Cano pointed out, progress is so slow that it could take a generation or more to close the gap.

The gap persists even though California’s per-pupil spending has been increased by 50 percent during Gov. Jerry Brown’s second governorship and much of that new money has been designated for helping “at-risk” poor and English-learner students.

The “Getting Down to Facts” project, which involved dozens of academic researchers with oversight from Stanford University, recommended that to close the gap and reach the state’s academic achievement goals, Californians should raise spending on schools by another 32 percent or about $22 billion a year in current dollars.

It’s a questionable premise since nationwide academic tests show virtually no correlation between the level of spending and achievement. But valid or not, it would be politically impossible to raise taxes by that much.

Any such proposal would not only draw opposition from many taxpaying voters, but from advocates for other public services. That’s particularly true of those who want universal health care, which would cost at least $100 billion more a year.

Given its politics, therefore, the proposed 32 percent increase could become a convenient, albeit authoritative, rationalization for failure.

How can you expect schools to close the gap, educators could argue if, as those Stanford researchers recommend, we need much more money to do so?

The answer to the question is that some schools and some school districts, as the new test results show, are achieving much more with what they have.

KPCC, a public radio station in Southern California, highlights one example in poverty-stricken South Los Angeles, to wit:

“Four years ago, some parents threatened to file ‘parent trigger’ petitions that would’ve taken control of 20th Street Elementary School away from the Los Angeles Unified School District. But since a new principal – and the Partnership for L.A. Schools – stepped in, the school has seen its scores rise more than 20 percentage points in both math and English.”

There are many other examples, especially among small school districts in agricultural communities, of dedicated teachers and principals prodding students into academic achievement generally seen in only wealthy suburban schools.

A massive increase in school spending is not in the works. If anything, as noted in this space recently, schools are struggling to balance their budgets as pension costs eat up bigger shares of their revenue streams, and the hefty increases seen in recent years probably will drop down to no more than inflation in the future.

The next governor, presumably Gavin Newsom, should push for examples of academic success to be replicated and also hold school officials more accountable for spending the extra money meant to help at-risk kids on them, not diverted elsewhere.

Failure should not be the default option it has been.

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CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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