What To Do About Education?

Put it at the top of the priority list, to start

Back Commentary Mar 1, 2011 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

Ask virtually anyone in the business community what Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration must do to repair our state’s broken economy, and over and again the answer is the same: improve education.

But, as you might guess, there’s far less agreement on what exactly should be done. The problems are complex and so, too, the solutions.

Where do we begin?

In the view of those we polled, we should start by looking at higher education in California as an industry: an engine of job creation, a source of innovation and upward economic mobility and a competitive advantage for the state. As such, it should be at the top of our public policy and financial priorities.

A first step is to examine the California Master Plan for Higher Education adopted five decades ago, and make it current based on today’s realities. Even if funding isn’t at the levels we desire (at least for the next few years), we should ensure a stable funding formula upon which the University of California, California State University and community college leadership can depend.

While funding is important, more dollars aren’t always the answer. University leaders, like those in other sectors, need to be creative in using reduced resources. Take, for instance, the Los Rios Community College District’s decision to eschew building a fifth campus and instead build less expensive education centers in underserved areas, including West Sacramento and Natomas.

Reassessing and restructuring roles and responsibilities within each institution are also essential. Let’s eliminate remedial classes in our community and state colleges. They are costly and take up too much valuable seat time, clogging up the system and preventing students from graduating in four years. Set clear guidelines and challenge students to meet them on their own. Allow the private sector, nonprofits and community organizations to pick up the slack as necessary.

 Transform California’s high schools by marrying academic courses with a technical core or theme. Our region’s career academies are the most successful education strategy of the past 50 years, improving graduation rates, academic achievement, college and career readiness and even lifetime earnings.

But why are these successful academies the exception rather than the rule in California? They simply don’t have the systemic support to grow and thrive. We need to work with school districts throughout the state to develop regional systems of support to implement rigorous career academies aligned with local work force needs.

Those employment demands should be researched and articulated by regional councils working with a state-level council, both groups made up of local civic and business leaders who suggest ways to align education to career opportunities.

As a charter school founder and mayor of a major city, Brown has had an unusual personal experience with thorny education issues. He appears to understand the fundamental importance of education and has vowed to play a major role in determining education policy. And, he’s taken some steps in the right direction. For one, he has eliminated the state education secretary and thus a layer of bureaucracy.

Now comes the hard part: Can the governor — and all of us as well — keep focused solely on determining and providing the best possible learning conditions for our students? That will mean making painful trade–offs — whether it’s eliminating redevelopment agencies to push more tax revenue to schools, reducing administrative levels and costs at universities or resisting powerful teachers’ unions to link teacher pay to performance.

Business and community leaders we polled say they’re ready to support the tough decisions that will put education at the top of our state’s list of priorities. Are you, Gov. Brown?

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