Ryan J. Smith

This is an open letter to Gov. Jerry Brown.

Dear Governor Brown:

Last week I received a message from Rocio Gonzalez, a parent of two boys attending Jordan High School in Watts. Growing up in an L.A. neighborhood known more for gang violence than for college graduates, Rocio understood that a quality education provided the best shot for her two sons to succeed. So as a single mom who did not complete high school, she did everything she could to make sure her sons did – from researching the best neighborhood schools and learning the right questions to ask her son’s teachers to taking them to local universities across the state.

She got news that her hard work had paid off.  With tears she shared that her oldest son Omar had received an acceptance letter to Cal Poly Pomona. He will graduate from Jordan High School this spring as the first from his family to attend college.

I believe the Gonzalez family story serves as a perfect example of why we fight to close achievement and opportunity gaps. Rocio knew she had to advocate for her children to ensure the educational opportunities that should be given to all students. However, families can’t do this alone.

Governor  Brown, we still have a moral imperative to make sure all students, regardless of race, income, or zip code, receive every opportunity to succeed. Before last week I thought you agreed.

That’s why I’m troubled by your remarks about the achievement gap as reported in a recent Cal Matters article. You were quoted as stating that the Local Control Funding Formula isn’t intended to close achievement gaps:  “The gap has been pretty persistent, so I don’t want to set up what hasn’t been done ever as the test of whether the LCFF is a success or failure. I don’t know why you would go there.” You also suggested closing achievement gaps is “pretty hard to do.”

You’re right – closing gaps is tough work. However, thousands of educators work to move the needle of student performance. We see evidence of schools and districts beating the odds and closing gaps every day. For example, just up the road from the Capitol, at Inderkum High School in Sacramento, 96 percent of black students graduate in four years. At Georgia Morris Elementary School in San Bernardino County, low-income 3rd-graders meet standards on the most recent English tests at nearly twice the rate of all low-income 3rd-graders in the state.

Govenor Brown,  it can be done and we should replicate promising practices when we see them.

More dangerously, though, you seem to provide a justification for the need for these gaps to exist. When asked about the goal to prepare all students for college and career, you remarked, “[do] you mean a career as a waiter? Do you mean a career as a window washer? Or do you mean something more elevated? Then who’s going to do all that other work that’s not elevated? Who does that? Or do we get robots for that?”

Huh? As you know, black and brown and low-income students have always been disproportionately relegated to these low-wage jobs. Are we condemning potentially millions of students to underemployment simply to support the privileged few – because somebody has to do it? We should not be this deterministic about any of California’s students – but it is particularly disconcerting to respond to questions about the achievement gap in such a manner when the majority of our students are students of color or living in poverty.

Your comments confirmed my greatest fear. Equity has become the new coconut water – the trend everyone is talking about, but not all of us are drinking.

Thousands of parents, students, educators, and advocates defended the need for Proposition 30, the move toward LCFF, and the implementation of the new content standards based on the belief that these policies will support equity. I continue to applaud you for moving boldly on these policies.

However, we should expect passage of these policies to accelerate closure of achievement and opportunity gaps. We focus on equitable strategies as a means to achieve results. Unfortunately, we have a history of giving the least to students who already start with less – the least amount of resources, the fewest effective teachers and the fewest opportunities to achieve, while suspending, expelling and pushing them out at higher rates.

Your comments also underscore the need to create strong accountability systems across the state. Some adults – maybe even you – believe these students can’t succeed. Some adults want little accountability for our schools. Because they believe the outcomes are inevitable, they see no need to demand change. However, schools like Inderkum High and Georgia Morris Elementary show that educators can help every child, regardless of background, achieve at high levels. Our state should send a clear signal that we demand those kinds of opportunities and results for all students.

Governor Brown, just as Rocio fought for both her sons to prevail, I believe you’re willing to fight for all of California’s students, too. As you noted in your 2013 State of the State address, “Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.” It’s not enough to treat our students equally – we must prioritize our most vulnerable students in order to accelerate their academic performance. I hope you can sit down with Californians like the Gonzalez family and clarify how we can make closure of gaps our north star. We can close opportunity and achievement gaps in this generation – but only if we collectively believe it’s possible.

Sincerely,

Ryan J. Smith

•••

Ryan Smith is executive director of The Education Trust–West based in Oakland. 

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  1. navigio 1 year ago1 year ago

    Nothing like some good emotional fodder. What the governor said was he didnt think using a metric that has never in the history of the world been achieved would be a good metric to use to measure the success or failure of LCFF as written. This is not the same thing as not believing all students can succeed, and frankly, it's surprising you would attribute such a belief to him. Remember that the current LCFF … Read More

    Nothing like some good emotional fodder.
    What the governor said was he didnt think using a metric that has never in the history of the world been achieved would be a good metric to use to measure the success or failure of LCFF as written. This is not the same thing as not believing all students can succeed, and frankly, it’s surprising you would attribute such a belief to him.
    Remember that the current LCFF is not even his LCFF. He was forced to negotiate down the level of contribution toward disadvantaged students in favor of the base grant (really in favor of non-disadvantaged students) in order to get it passed. This, by definition, means we have something whose resources are already less than he desired.
    Then, it’s likely his original, pre-negotiated version was even less than he would have liked (actually I would almost guarantee that). Add to that that his ideas surrounding Prop 30 were also diluted, and that this is money that is being directed at the implementation of LCFF; add to that that LCFF isn’t even fully funded yet, and maybe will never be; add to that his comments about persistent society inequality, and you might start to understand why Brown would caution against assuming this is a perfect solution.
    It is possible to believe that every student can succeed, yet, at the same time, to realize that we are not yet doing enough to get there. In fact, it’s likely that the more dangerous assumption is yours: that LCFF was enough to fix the centuries of inequality and exclusion. LCFF is a tiny step on a very long road that can admittedly be navigated at different speeds, and while there are people trying to impose detours and construct barriers. If we don’t understand that, we are in danger of stopping too soon because we believe we’ve already arrived. This is probably the single biggest problem with education ‘reform’ in general, and would be a disaster for Brown’s goal of justice, specifically.
    Personally, I think you lost an opportunity to use his comments as a catalyst for making explicit how our society sets its expectations for student achievement. What he said is a reflection on at least a couple of decades of ‘accountability’ and ‘solutions’ that have put us almost no step closer to our goal. We really need to start discussing why that is the case. Pretending LCFF is finally the pot of gold isn’t going to do that.

  2. Patricia Horton 1 year ago1 year ago

    Amen. At Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Colton, CA., the dream is alive. We all come everyday believing fully in our heart that it is not only possible for our students but our mission, with our families and the community, to close the achievement gap. We Believe! Patricia Horton, Principal Abraham Lincoln Elementary School

  3. Alicia Lara 1 year ago1 year ago

    Bravo Ryan! I am hopeful that the governor’s true intentions are about supporting the full success of low-income students of color. If this is the case he should come out with an unequivical statement. If not and he has revealed his true thinking, then he is not fit to be the Governor of this great state.

  4. Suzanne 1 year ago1 year ago

    Wonderful article, I couldn’t agree more!

  5. Dan B. Walden 1 year ago1 year ago

    Ryan, good comments. Let’s talk about the role of school boards in closing the gap, and about how I can help. Dan

  6. Paul Muench 1 year ago1 year ago

    Governor Brown has consistently acted in ways to balance the importance of standardized tests with other factors. Typically people talk about achievement gaps as gaps in scores on standardized tests. Your own comments seem focused on test scores as well. With the new focus on local control it would seem to me that Governor Brown would want to send a message the state is not the main focus for educational outcomes. That … Read More

    Governor Brown has consistently acted in ways to balance the importance of standardized tests with other factors. Typically people talk about achievement gaps as gaps in scores on standardized tests. Your own comments seem focused on test scores as well.

    With the new focus on local control it would seem to me that Governor Brown would want to send a message the state is not the main focus for educational outcomes. That message seems to have been conveyed.

    So I see the Governor’s statements in line with his policies, although making statements about the future success of students and schools seemed gratuitous, and he should provide clarity and make a simple apology.

  7. Dawn Urbanek 1 year ago1 year ago

    Ryan- I appreciate your letter and the recognition that Governor Brown did acknowledge that the LCFF was not about closing the achievement gap. What people have not realized yet is Governor Brown's true intention. The State's #1 Constitutionally mandated spending priority is Public Education. So stop and think about a law that caps per pupil funding at 2007-08 levels plus inflation not to be reached until 2021. In 2007-08 State Tax Revenues were $103 billion; today … Read More

    Ryan- I appreciate your letter and the recognition that Governor Brown did acknowledge that the LCFF was not about closing the achievement gap. What people have not realized yet is Governor Brown’s true intention.

    The State’s #1 Constitutionally mandated spending priority is Public Education. So stop and think about a law that caps per pupil funding at 2007-08 levels plus inflation not to be reached until 2021. In 2007-08 State Tax Revenues were $103 billion; today they are projected to exceed $125 billion.

    “Local Control” means Jerry Brown keeps the revenue for his spending priorities and then passes the cost of providing a “quality education” down to taxpayers who will end up paying for a service that the State is already constitutionally obligated to provide. We will be asked to extend Prop 30 taxes, we will be asked to pass a bond to pay for facilities, he has already increased the cap on local tax rates and he intends to give Districts the ability to tax us as well- all the while he spends tax money that should go to education on High speed rail and new programs and entitlements that are not constitutionally mandated.

    My District will have had flat funding of around $7,500 for 14 years by 2021. We have average class sizes of 36 kids (32 in pre k and K); our facilities have not been maintained; we have cut over $152 million from our budget and we have no honors classes, no art, music or science unless parents can fundraise. The continued lack of adequate funding has resulted in a notable decline in the academic performance of students across all demographics. California educates 1 in 8 students in the U.S. When California fails, the nation fails. This law is unconstitutional because it intentionally underfunds all school districts that have a low percentage of students who are English language learners, receiving free and reduced lunch and/or are in foster care simply because of where they happen to live, and irrespective of their individual wealth race or ethnicity.

    That is invidious discrimination. Every student in my district is being denied their constitutional right to sufficient funding to provide students with core academic classes that align with minimum state content standards and curriculum frameworks. When I questioned some students not receiving art or music because the schools were to poor to fundraise, I was told that under local control it is the individual classroom teacher that determines instructional content and instructional time.

    California has no minimum standard under local control. see: Slide Presentation to the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees at http://www.slideshare.net/DawnUrbanek/fundraising-for-core-educational-programs and listen to the Board Audio at January 27, 2016 BOT Meeting Agenda Item #5 – Fundraising for Core Educational Programs and Board Meeting Audio at 2:28:0 to 2:47:45
    http://cusd.capousd.org/cusdweb/boardaudio/1-27-16/CUSDBoardMeeting.January.27.2016.mp3

  8. Wendy Shrove 1 year ago1 year ago

    The LCFF definitely attempts to address the need for more funding for students with extra needs. The problem is that the base grant is not enough to educate ANY student. The result will continue to be that no student in California will get a quality education without local communities supplementing funding through bond measures. This model has become the de facto solution to the state shirking its Constitutional responsibilities to educating our youth. … Read More

    The LCFF definitely attempts to address the need for more funding for students with extra needs. The problem is that the base grant is not enough to educate ANY student. The result will continue to be that no student in California will get a quality education without local communities supplementing funding through bond measures. This model has become the de facto solution to the state shirking its Constitutional responsibilities to educating our youth.

    The only reason that some communities are squeaking out successful students is because there are enough taxpayers that are willing to subsidize the state. As the electorate, we need to STOP passing these bond measures, both at the state and local levels and insist that our legislators start advocating for our children instead of passing the buck right back to the taxpayers.

  9. Gloria Ervin 1 year ago1 year ago

    Ryan, Thank you yet again for your advocacy for black and brown students. These/Our students can and will defy the odds as long as they have access to the opportunity to do so. The resiliency in our students is astonishing; however, we have to stop the micro-aggression that create barriers in our classrooms, schools, districts, county, and state. I too wonder about the fidelity to “equity” in our public school system.

  10. Mary Johnson 1 year ago1 year ago

    The State Of California is more about equality than equity. If we look through the lens of equity for all students, then we can make a changes in individual students' pathway, instead of one model for all students' need. I have four children and am a single mom from right outside of Watts. Each of my children has a different need, and I advocate for equity resources to meet each one of my children. … Read More

    The State Of California is more about equality than equity. If we look through the lens of equity for all students, then we can make a changes in individual students’ pathway, instead of one model for all students’ need. I have four children and am a single mom from right outside of Watts. Each of my children has a different need, and I advocate for equity resources to meet each one of my children. I didn’t worry what others students wanted if it didn’t fix my child’s need. Governor Brown is so connect to the CTA that he so afraid of Real Talk. The problem is yes, we have LCFF but very little accountability, when the districts can spend the monies any way they chose. Plus about 85 percent goes to salaries. I am very proud as single black mother that I knew how to navigate the prek-12 grades school structure. I have four college graduates from the inner city.

  11. Don 1 year ago1 year ago

    Well said, Mr. Smith. Like many I was shocked by Brown’s cavalier comments and surprised he hasn’t as yet walked them back, for what that’s worth. It was a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde moment from the man who brought us LCFF. If closing the achievement gap is not to be expected, what then is his rationale to providing targeted LCFF funding for that very purpose?