Why school reform will continue to be so hard

July 31, 2012

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 should 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 a forum in Sacramento last week on school finance sponsored by PPIC, the Public Policy Institute of California.

What they agreed on was that the fixes of the last 30 or 40 years – what state School Board President Michael Kirst called “the historical accretion” of programs – wasn’t working. It has become, State Sen. Joe Simitian said, “the Winchester Mystery House” of school finance, rooms added willy-nilly to solve one or another problem.

Neither the policymakers nor the reformers are entirely – or maybe even mostly – to blame. In a state that now ranks in the bottom 10 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,” 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 two main elements:


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.

Making 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 the state has committed to making the transition within the next year or two, at a time when school spending is being cut, teachers are being laid off, and the teaching force is already demoralized. And the state expects the locals to buy the necessary materials. If this is not a sick joke, it’s close to it.

The “historical accretion” that 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 in which local control favored the privileged and short-changed poor and minority kids: Southern school segregation, school funding, the drawing of school attendance zones, the assignment of teachers to the nicest, brightest, newest schools, and a host of other decisions.

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 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 latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report,, where this column first appeared.

For previous commentaries that Peter Schrag wrote for Thoughts on Public Education (TOP-ed.org), go here.

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