By just about any measure, California’s education system is in bad shape. Both higher and K-12 education have been battered by huge budget reductions. State support for higher education is about half of what it was in 1980. Funding for K-12 is close to the bottom nationally. And as funding for education lags the nation, so does student achievement. According to results from the National Assessment for Education Progress, California students rank well below the national average. Even our highest performing students rank below their counterparts in other states. When California students are compared to students in other developed nations, the rankings are even lower.
These bleak trends are not lost on Californians. A poll conducted last April by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that more than 70 percent of the public is very concerned about the quality of education in the state and the long-term impact of budget cuts on the education of their children.
In difficult times such as these, it is tempting for politicians to respond to public discontent by proposing one-dimensional solutions to complex problems. Fire incompetent teachers; reduce class size; toughen standards; eliminate waste and inefficiency; and the list goes on. California’s education system is a dustbin of ideas about how to fix education.
Jerry Brown’s “Education Plan” (www.JerryBrown.org/education) is a radical departure from the usual quick fixes that avoid dealing with the underlying problems. Brown has a comprehensive and coherent plan that takes on the complex problems of education. At the elementary and secondary levels, Brown’s plan proposes initiatives in eleven areas. In my view, the most important of them are 1) an overhaul of the state testing program; 2) changes in school funding formulas and consolidation of a hodge-podge of categorical programs; 3) major changes in teacher recruitment and training; and 4) emphasis on teaching science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Testing. The state spends over $100 million per year to test students. Typically, students spend three days each spring filling in bubble-sheet answers. Some students actually try to get right answers, others leave them blank, and yet others make Christmas tree patterns as they fill in the bubbles. While students’ answers mean nothing for them, they mean a great deal for teachers, administrators, and local property values.
Brown proposes several very important changes in the current testing system. He proposes tests that are tied to college preparation and career readiness. Current assessments provide no such information. Nor can they tell parents, teachers, and administrators why some schools score high while others score low. In other words, the current system fails to provide the kind of information that matters. Brown urges an assessment system that helps teachers, students, and their families know where they stand and what specific improvements are needed. This would be a huge improvement over the current testing system.
Funding. The present finance system is so complex that even legislators in key leadership positions admit to not understanding how it works. Our current school funding formulas that determine how much money each school district receives were created in 1972 and are disconnected from today’s cost of providing education in any given community. Some 60 or more special-purpose, restricted funds are piled willy-nilly on top of general-purpose funds to create a funding system that is, by most measures, inefficient, inadequate, and inequitable. Jerry Brown’s proposal would eliminate most of the special-purpose funds and create a funding system that is closely aligned with the cost of education while also providing for special student needs, for example special education students and English-language learners. Brown’s plan would create a rational, transparent funding system.
Teaching. If Brown’s plan for teacher recruitment and preparation were to be implemented, it would be a great step toward strengthening the teaching profession by improving teacher education and providing teachers with greater support on the job. He proposes that students need to be recruited into teaching as early as high school. His plan recognizes that in addition to high-quality preparation programs, teachers, especially in the early stages of their careers, need support and mentoring.
Science, Math, and Engineering. The California Council on Science and Technology ranks the paucity of science, math, and engineering majors at the top of challenges facing the state’s economy. In many schools, science and technology programs have been cut in the wake of the state’s financial crisis. Brown’s plan proposes measures to strengthen teaching and learning in this critical area.
What we don’t learn from Brown’s plan is where the money will come from to fund some of these proposals. But much of what the plan proposes does not require new money, and some of the features could be phased in as the state’s economy recovers.
I’ve only touched on what I see as the major provisions in Brown’s education plan. There is much more. I urge you to read it. He is willing to take on the tough issues that others have kicked down the road for the past 30 years.
Thomas Timar is Professor of Education Policy and director of the Center for Applied Policy in Education at UC Davis. Much of his research and writing concerns issues of school finance and governance and school improvement.