Beyond Proposition 30: Eight Challenges for California's education future

November 19, 2012

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Louis Freedberg

The passage of Proposition 30 represents a major victory for public schools, and for Governor Jerry Brown, but still to be tackled are multiple challenges facing California’s education future.

Here are eight principal challenges:

1.  Bringing the state’s funding levels up to the U.S. average

Latest estimates rank California 46th in per capita spending compared to other states. Over the past decade, the gap between California spending per student and the national average has grown from $691 in 2001-02 to $2856 in 2010-11. According to the California Budget Project, just bringing California to the national average – let alone the highest-spending states like Massachusetts or New Jersey – would cost $17.3 billion, three times more than the amount raised by Prop. 30. The discrepancy raises a basic issue of fairness: Should California’s children be subjected to a less effective education than their peers in many others states just because they happened to be born here?

2.  Achieving funding equity among California school districts

Beyond California’s lagging behind other states, there are major discrepancies among school districts in how much is spent on education. In many cases, current funding formulas don’t take into account the additional effort and costs involved with educating students from disadvantaged or English learner backgrounds. Gov. Brown has proposed funding based on a “weighted student formula” to give additional funds to school districts serving high-needs students. But it is far from clear whether it will be possible to do so without diverting funds – and generating resistance – from wealthier school districts.

3.  Implementing new accountability and testing systems

The  accountability systems established by the No Child Left Behind law did not result in a dramatic transformation in school performance. California is now in the process of implementing the Common Core State Standards adopted by 46 states – as well as gearing up for new computer-based testing systems that will replace California’s current standardized testing regimen, the California Standards Test. Enormous amounts of work remain to be done in implementing both the standards and the new assessment systems – and it is far from clear how many school districts will have the capacity to do so successfully in the short time frame they will be given.

4.  Restoring core programs trimmed or eliminated as a result of budget cuts

Proposition 30 will not provide funding to restore programs trimmed or eliminated over the past five years since the beginning of the Great Recession. Depending on the district, these include a shorter instructional calendar; the erosion of the K-3 class size reduction program; reduced counseling staff; cuts in music, art and physical education programs; and the drastic shrinkage or elimination of summer and adult school programs. There is an ongoing debate over the effectiveness of the class size reduction programs, but there is no doubt that schools are under far greater stresses in meeting the needs of individual students than they were before the Great Recession.

5. Helping students from economically distressed households succeed in school 

Large numbers of children live in households where parents are unemployed, facing the prospect of foreclosure, or dealing with other impacts of the state’s struggling economy. Many of these children need more individual help, counseling, or mental health services. Others need academic support to help compensate for the stressful home environment they live in – or neighborhoods characterized by high levels of unemployment, housing foreclosures, and violence. Yet schools lack the resources to address the needs of the whole child, not just his or her educational needs in the classroom.

6.  Managing the costs of special education

As the cost of special education services rises – driven in part by the nearly fourfold increase in the  number of students diagnosed as autistic – school districts face enormous challenges in underwriting the costs of mandatory services called for in a student’s Individual Education Plan. The federal government continues to provide 11 to 12 percent of the cost of special education services despite their being mandated in the early 1970s by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act approved by Congress, with local districts and Sacramento having to make up the difference.

7.  Linking the school curriculum more directly with college and careers

The latest buzz phrase in education reform circles is “career and college readiness” – ensuring that students leave high school with the skills they need to  succeed in college and the world of work, while making the high school curriculum relevant and engaging to them. Already a central dimension of the Obama Administration’s education reform agenda, new legislation (SB1458) signed into law by Governor Brown will push that concept onto the front burner of state education policy as well.

8.  Expanding technology in the classroom

School districts face the challenge of using online tools and technology to improve the effectiveness of classroom instruction – and to tailor instruction for students with particular education needs. In addition, school districts will need to be able to offer computerized assessments being developed for implementation of the Common Core State Standards in California. But many districts don’t have either the hardware or software that they need to take advantage of the contributions the digital revolution can make to the classroom.

Celebrating Proposition 30’s passage is entirely appropriate. In providing stop-gap funding, Prop. 30 is a hugely important first step towards reversing the state’s decades-long disinvestment in its public school system. But for educators on the front lines of our schools, the euphoria will be tempered by the knowledge of the work that must still be done to raise student achievement to world-class levels.

Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource, a nonpartisan, non profit Oakland-based organization founded in 1977 to engage Californians on key education challenges.

Do you have any challenges you think should be added to this list?  Please use the comments section below to share your thoughts. 

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