Our Broken Schools

Stop cutting and start strategizing

Back Commentary Aug 31, 2011 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

I find myself getting hot under the collar every time I read another story or report on the pitiful state of public education in California.

As a parent, I care passionately about our society’s role in educating the young. As a businessperson, I know as well as you do that there’s a direct link between our youngsters’ education and our economic well-being. And, as a citizen and taxpayer, I’m dismayed by our state’s declining support for the very institutions responsible for educating the next generation.

Let’s put aside for the moment the daily media stories and political rants that so often interpret data through the lens of one group or another. First teachers are the problem, then administrators, then inadequate budgets or flawed performance measures.
 
Let’s look instead at some of the most unbiased data we have regarding our schools and how we compare to other states. Comparisons aren’t the whole story, but they can be very helpful in adding perspective to hotly debated topics like this one.

Consider, for example, how students in states across the country compare in school performance, acknowledging that most states are struggling to improve student achievement in the face of declining budgets and more diverse populations.

In 2009 California eighth graders ranked only 46th nationwide in math achievement and 44th in reading. In both cases, scores of California students are not very different than they were in 2007.

New York, on the other hand, a state often cited as somewhat similar to California in size and diversity, ranked 22nd in math and 15th in reading. Massachusetts, by the way, comes in first in both categories.

These rankings come from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a research group within the U.S. Department of Education, which has produced assessments of elementary and secondary students since 1969.

Now let’s look at what proportion of our financial resources we’re willing to commit to education.

Californians have been slowly reducing the amount we spend on education since the 1970s, according to the nonpartisan, nonprofit EdSource. Our capacity for funding (based on personal income) is higher than the national average, though obviously diminished in these recessionary times.
 
Yet we rank far below the national average: Our per-pupil expenditure ranks 28th if we don’t adjust for our higher labor costs; 43rd if we do.

Like virtually every other state, California spends roughly two-thirds of its budget on instruction. As school budgets have been cut and cut again, districts have struggled to maintain barely average student-teacher ratios in elementary grades, ranking 33rd in the nation, according to NCES.
 
In our secondary schools we’ve hit bottom, consistently ranking among the three worst states in staff ratios: fewer teachers, librarians and guidance counselors per student than almost every other state. Is it any wonder our high school dropout rates are among the highest in the nation?

Still, things could get worse. Governor Brown’s flawed budget — based on overly optimistic revenue assumptions — calls for further cuts if and when revenue projections are not met, including shortening the K-12 school year to save money.

What message are we sending to our young people when we give them too little time to learn, too few adults to help them and too little money for supplies and activities?

I think the message is clear: We don’t think you are worth our investment; get by the best you can because we have other priorities.

This is simply unconscionable. We can’t ignore our real challenges: the largest school population in the country, a diverse population, shrinking budgets, union demands and more.

We need to address those challenges as thinking adults, looking for solutions that make students and their schools our top priority.

Otherwise, we face a public school system that is dying a death by a thousand cuts.

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