How California Can Be a K-12 Leader Again

SACRAMENTO—Heavy hitters in education reform convened here Monday for mayor Kevin Johnson’s Education Summit. The event was a microcosm of changes afoot nationwide and packed a powerful message for California.

The summit had three overarching goals: 1) offering real-world innovative reform ideas that increase school options for parents, improve accountability for results, and maximize human capital; 2) talking with local Sacramento leaders, including parents, about implementing those ideas; and 3) producing a white paper to serve as a blueprint for reform.

Speakers included Michele Rhee, chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools; Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education; Howard Fuller, former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and co-founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO); and Newark mayor Cory Booker, BAEO board member and advisory board member of Democrats for Education Reform. These and other speakers offered a welcome alternative to the business-as-usual education “reforms” that typically trickle down from Sacramento. Consider Ms. Rhee’s voluntary performance-pay plan.

Depending on the plan they choose, D.C. public school teachers’ could earn up to $135,000 after just five years. Washington Teachers’ Union leadership opposes the measure because teachers would earn higher salaries if they forgo tenure and embrace performance contracts instead—a much-needed reform since around nine of 10 D.C. public school students test at functionally illiterate levels on the Nation’s Report Card.

New York City chancellor Joel Klein flatly rejected the notion that resources equals reform. He noted that since 1983, education funding nationwide has doubled in real terms, but student performance has flatlined—but don’t blame such poor performance on poor children. “[S]o many people have told me, you’ll never fix education ‘til you fix poverty.’ If you believe that, you’ll never fix education.” Klein advocates an accountable system with real consequences for adults, including being fired, and letting parents pick public schools.

“If a school’s not good enough for my child, it’s not good enough for any child,” said Klein, to loud applause.

“The hypocrisy around choice is astounding,” declared Howard Fuller. “When did we start believing that the bureaucracy can take care of your kids? Bureaucrats sustain themselves.”

As Milwaukee school superintendent when the country’s first modern K-12 voucher program launched in 1990, Dr. Fuller hailed the program as a matter of civil rights and has stated previously that “to me the central question is, ‘Should there be an America where only those people with money have the ability to choose?’. …I’ve never understood why… it’s okay for people to use a Pell Grant, but they don’t want low-income parents in Cleveland or Milwaukee to have the same options [with vouchers].”

Mayor Booker advocated empowering parents instead of infantilizing them when it comes to choosing their children’s schools. One reform he supports is tax-credit scholarships, programs in which individuals and businesses can claim donations to 501 (c)(3) charitable scholarship-granting organizations against their state taxes.

In 2006 Mayor Booker declared it is “morally wrong” for “the connected, the elected, the privileged,” whose children attend private schools, “not to favor a system that creates options for parents that are now being enjoyed by those privileged elites in urban communities around our nation.”

Mayor Johnson’s summit and its forthcoming white paper come at a critical time for California. An historic number of school-reform proposals will likely be introduced this legislative session, including finance reform, plans to expand public district and charter school options, and tax-credit scholarships to help students attend the public or private school of their choice regardless of where their parents can afford to live.

If state officials actually heed the reforms recommended at the summit, particularly parental choice, California could once again be a K-12 leader instead of a cautionary tale.

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is Associate Director of Education Studies.

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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