Wednesday, August 15, 2007


by Dan Walters | The Sacramento Bee.

August 15, 2007 - One of Arnold Schwarzenegger's early acts as California governor was to settle a lawsuit alleging that poor children attending poorly performing neighborhood schools were being denied their right to a good education.

The 2004 settlement acknowledged, in effect, that the students were being denied textbooks, qualified teachers, safe and adequate classrooms and other educational basics. Schwarzenegger agreed to spend an additional $1 billion on schools with the lowest 30 percent of academic test scores.

This week, the lawyers who brought the suit — the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Public Advocates — hailed the outcome in an update prepared by researchers at UCLA. "The Williams case has provided millions of California students with the basic essentials they need to succeed," co-counsel Brooks Allen of the ACLU said as the report was released.

The study found that the paucity of fully qualified teachers had been eased, that schools are being repaired and that the shortage of textbooks had dropped sharply.

"We have not yet solved every problem in every school, but the positive trends that have emerged demonstrate that this system of accountability, combined with targeted funding, works," Public Advocates co-counsel John Affeldt added.

Few would dispute that good classrooms, adequate textbooks and qualified teachers are basic necessities. And providing them is largely a matter of spending money, as the lawsuit's settlement demonstrates. What no one has proved — or disproved, for that matter — is whether spending more money does, in fact, have a significant effect on educational outcomes.

It's no small question, because it lies at the heart of California's endless debate over public education, which has raged for nearly three decades, ever since voters adopted Proposition 13 and the state started seeing a massive influx of immigrants from other countries, both of which hugely affected schools.

The education establishment has argued vociferously, with some success, that spending more on teacher salaries, smaller classes and better facilities would produce better outcomes. In the main, political leaders have endorsed that contention, although they've been unable to supply all the money that educators say they need.

Critics have countered that there is no direct correlation between spending and academic success, noting that private schools and whole states with lower per-pupil spending levels often surpass California in national academic tests, high-school-dropout rates and other measures of performance. They contend that public education needs a structural overhaul, not merely more money.

The latter contention received a boost earlier this year when a 1,700-page, foundation-sponsored, Stanford University-managed series of studies on California's schools was released. While the study team said that California's schools need more money — but was unable to pinpoint a specific amount — it also concluded that spending more without what one study leader called "systemic and fundamental reform" would not create the renaissance that everyone professes to want.

The Stanford studies and this week's report on the lawsuit settlement's implementation are indications that the great debate on California education is beginning to reach a climactic stage, when some fundamental decisions about the direction of the 6 million student system will be made.

Schwarzenegger has declared that 2008 will be the "year of education," and the many educational interest groups are cranking up. There's even a possibility that the education establishment will mount a drive to raise state taxes for schools.

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