The Crisis in California’s Public Education System

By Chris Bertelli

There is a crisis in California’s public education system. According to teachers unions and the NAACP, the crisis involves an attempted takeover of the public school system by greedy billionaires and profit machines, led by modern day George Wallaces.

In truth, 90% of California’s public school children attend a district-run school, governed by locally-elected boards. It is these districts, we are told, that are the vanguard of educational quality and accountability.

By avoiding any discussion of whether districts do an adequate job in educating students or are accountable to anyone for results, they attempt to make education debates about governance and process and not about whether students actually receive an education.

It is in the results of the traditional system boosted by these organizations where the crisis truly resides.

Sixty-five percent of California’s low-income students do not meet state standards in English/Language Arts, 76% do not meet them in math. When broken down to consider ethnicity within these numbers, 75% of low-income African American students don’t meet state standards in ELA and 86% fall short in math. For low-income Latino students, 68% don’t meet ELA standards and 80% fall short in math.

This summer, CALmatters contacted the fifteen districts with the highest concentration of low-income, English learner and foster students for whom the state boosted funding in 2013. She wanted to know what they had done with the extra funds and the results of those investments.

The academic results are bad. This is from CALmatter’s report:

A CALmatters analysis of the biggest districts with the greatest clusters of needy children found limited success with the policy’s goal: to close the achievement gap between these students and their more privileged peers. Instead, test scores in most of those districts show the gap is growing.

Most districts also displayed an appalling lack of transparency (emphasis mine):

More than half of the districts refused to respond to any questions about their finances. A few would only say how much extra money for needy students they had received—not how they had spent it. Others complained about the burden of the inquiry.

I’m going to see if that’s something we can identify without going through a forensic audit,” said Marlene Dunn, the chief business official for Lynwood Unified School District in Los Angeles County. “It could take a couple hundred hours of staff time to give you that information in that manner,” she added. “You’re asking us to go back in time and find something we didn’t track.”

CALmatters isn’t the only group to run into transparency issues while trying to gather information. A May Voice of San Diego story chronicled the attempt of parents to get basic budgetary information that the district was using to make layoff decisions. In its investigation, it uncovered the following (emphasis mine):

Earlier this year, [SDUSD Superintendent Cindy] Marten announced the district was under a hiring freeze. But [SDUSD Board Member Kevin] Beiser told me that when he first requested information on the number of staff members who’d been hired during the freeze, he got no answers from Marten. He ended up asking a parent to file a public records request for the information – not that this approach would necessary turn around information any faster.

VOSD analyzed more than 400 California Public Records Act requests filed by members of the public between 2013 and 2016, and found if often takes the district more than 200 days to deliver records to citizens and journalists who request them. One citizen waited at least 517 days for records the district never delivered.

San Jose Unified School District staff collaborated with the local teachers union to kill a proposed charter petition by lying to parents and teachers who signed the petition and by claiming the charter is not needed because of the “great things” being done by district-run schools (emphasis mine).

“We wanted to remind the board that a lot of schools are doing great things and there are a lot of happy and satisfied and engaged people,” said Jennifer Thomas, president of the San Jose Teachers Association.
Parents supporting Perseverance said they wanted other, better options.

At Hoover Middle School, which serves the downtown population targeted by Perseverance, only 25 percent of students scored proficient in English and 15 percent proficient in math on state tests last year.

The disdain for the parents and students they serve has gone beyond hubris and arrogance into full-fledged scandal and crisis in many of California’s school districts. Yet, the NCAAP and union leadership think this is the system in which we should invest more of our trust? Districts that ignore and disenfranchise parents and students while refusing to provide an adequate education?

In the novel 1984, George Orwell wrote, “Power is not a means; it is an end….The object of power is power.” We are now witnessing what power as an ends unto itself is truly like.

About the author

Chris Bertelli is the founder of Bertelli Public Affairs, an education public affairs consultancy based in Sacramento, California. He specializes in working with clients focused on improving educational equity in California public schools.

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