California Schools Behind the Curve

Gov. Jerry Brown said in his State of the State address that the so-called “declinists,” those who worry about California’s place in the nation and the world, are wrong. He pointed to areas where the state is supposedly ahead of rivals, like Texas, Massachusetts and New York.

However, if one looks at the education proposals in his speech this month, it is obvious that much of the country has passed by Brown and California.

Brown’s education agenda contains a mishmash of proposals, some of which are steps backward and some that are mildly positive. On the clearly negative end, the governor, who has never been a fan of student testing, wants to reduce the number of tests and increase so-called “qualitative assessments.” Trouble is, the reason tests are important is because they offer objective quantifiable data to measure student progress and the effect of teachers and schools on learning.

A recent study of 2.5 million students, conducted over a 20-year period by Harvard and Columbia researchers, found that teacher quality based on student test scores is strongly linked to student life outcomes such as college graduation and future earnings.

In contrast, the qualitative assessments that Brown favors, such as school site visits, use subjective evaluations by the very education officials who often are the problem. Remember, the often-criticized teacher evaluation system in California heavily relies on subjective qualitative assessments, which results in the firing of very few bad teachers.

On the seemingly positive side, Brown proposed a change in a school funding method called “weighted student formula.” Brown would eliminate certain earmarked programs and attach those tax dollars to disadvantaged students and those not fluent in English. The devil will be in the details because this type of funding mechanism often allows budget dollars to be attached to a student to take to the public school of his or her choice.

However, it is likely that there will be very little choice coming from the Legislature. Indeed, Brown’s “weighted student formula” proposal pales in comparison with the robust school-choice programs being proposed by some other governors.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal has just unveiled his new education reform plan. It expands the New Orleans school-choice voucher program – which currently allows 1,800 low-income students to attend a private school of their choice – to low-income students throughout Louisiana. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also proposes a similar choice program.

In his State of the State address for New Jersey, Gov. Christie pushed for an Opportunity Scholarship program that would create a scholarship tax credit program for low-income students attending the lowest-performing school districts.

“Opportunity should not be offered to only those in an excellent school district or with parents who have the money to release their children from the prison that is a failing school,” Christie said.

It’s not just reformist elected officials who are demanding real choices for students and their parents.

Jan. 22-28 marks National School Choice Week, and tens of thousands of people are organizing events across the country. The kickoff rally in New Orleans on Jan. 21 was attended by an estimated 2,500 people.

“For too long, too many kids have been forced to attend very bad schools, or schools that aren’t a good fit for them, just because those happened to be the only schools in their neighborhoods,” said Kyle Olson, executive officer of National School Choice Week.

Ordinary people aren’t rallying for “qualitative assessments.” People want choice in their lives, including education. They are fed up with the public education status quo and are organizing to do something about it. Governors in other states are hearing his message. Jerry Brown needs to hear it, too.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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