Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared 2008 would be “The Year of Education Reform.” Now, more than halfway through the year, California parents continue to wait for promised relief. If the governor’s blueprint for reform is any indication, they may be waiting for a long time.
Gov. Schwarzenegger unveiled “Students First: Renewing Hope for California,” a report by the Governor’s Committee on Educational Excellence. After two years of research, members of the appointed committee are currently touring the state advocating for its proposed reforms as the answer to California’s education woes. Though accurate in its assessment of the system’s abysmal results and structural flaws, the report leaves out the most important element: true parental choice in education.
“Students First” begins with California’s current reality of failure. California ranks near the bottom of the states on the NAEP test, commonly known as the nation’s report card. Less than one in four California students meets national standards. Low scores can’t be blamed on the students, insists the committee, as every demographic group trails its peers in other states and nations. The committee emphasizes at the outset that “This is a problem of systems, not individuals.” To fix this broken system, the committee sets four priorities, each with its own host of policy recommendations.
These priorities include: (1) strengthen teaching and leadership, (2) ensure fair funding that rewards results, (3) streamline governance and strengthen accountability, and (4) use data wisely. Meeting such priorities will require more spending. “It is clear to us that the system we propose cannot be funded with existing resources alone,” the committee says. Conspicuously absent from this laundry list, however, is the cheapest and most empirically effective reform, parental choice.
That phrase appears only once in the 278 pages of “Students First,” which offers only a kind of lip service to choice. In the “Empower Parents and Voters” section, the report says, “It is particularly important that parents have distinct choices available to meet the educational needs they determine to be best for their families. The Committee endorses the state’s existing options for school choice, including charter schools, within the public school system.” If the public school system cannot meet your needs, “the Committee recommends that the state require districts to notify parents of the types of public and private education options available to students residing within the district.”
In other words, parents have the right to know the options, but not the full ability to act on them. Vouchers and tax credits are nowhere to be found in the committee’s recommendations, yet Gov. Schwarzenegger believes parents will still have a meaningful choice.
“So what this committee says is, we’ve got to put together all of this information (testing data), because then the schools will become competitive, so then you will have choice,” said the governor in a speech celebrating the release of “Students First.”
“You will say that this school is performing much better than this school; I’m going to take my child out of this school and send her to this school. You will see this school now expanding and this school losing students. So you will see, they will straighten out their act and get a new principal very quickly,” said the governor. Yet, even this ideal scenario provides parents with only two district-run options. If neither meets parents’ needs, they are out of luck.
“The foundation for every finding and recommendation in this report is equity, the deeply held personal conviction of each and every Committee member that all children in California should have access to a high-quality education.”
These are the first words of “Students First,” yet they ring false when the state appears intent on ignoring the superior performance of private schools and confining reform efforts within a failed government monopoly. For the sake of the students and the state, Gov. Schwarzenegger should make parental choice a part of California’s educational future.
Ian Randolph is a summer policy associate in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.