Friday, March 21, 2008

What education needs: sensible talk, not noise

"The delay underscores the low priority that the governor, despite all rhetoric to the contrary, seems to put on education, except insofar as schools cost money. "

by Peter Schrag | Sacramento Bee columnist

Article Launched: 03/20/2008 01:45:37 AM PDT

If you can work your way through the politics and posturing around California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed $4.8 billion school-funding cuts and the pink slips lately delivered to a reported 20,000 teachers, you might be able to get to the bedrock of the state's convoluted and incomprehensible public education system.

Last Friday, four months after it was completed, Schwarzenegger was finally persuaded to release "Students First," the report of his Committee on Education Excellence, which attempts to address the mess. The report is dated November 2007.

The delay underscores the low priority that the governor, despite all rhetoric to the contrary, seems to put on education, except insofar as schools cost money. Even in his remarks at the release of the report he talked more about "budget reform, budget reform, budget reform" than he did about schools.

Most of the media quickly seized on the contrast between the cost of the committee's recommendations - the rough number is $10.5 billion - and the governor's proposed multibillion-dollar whack at school funding this year and next.

Yet, as Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill urged, and as a number of others have proposed, a lot of the political sky-is-falling atmosphere may not be necessary.

Hill and her staff recommend a strategic approach, cutting "poorly structured, duplicative or technically overbudgeted" programs. They would shift funds (as for student busing) from

non-school transportation budgets, eliminate cost-of-living increases for next year, give districts more flexibility in spending categorical funds and use a variety of other budgetary devices to soften the hit. Together, her proposals would reduce by $3.2 billion the amount by which the complex Proposition 98 minimum-school-funding floor would have to be lowered.

There's a similar proposal from Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who warns that suspending the Proposition 98 guarantee a second time in four years would set a dangerous precedent. Simitian's plan is also based on shifting funds - some still owed schools from past years - that would cushion the blow but still save the state budget $3.2 billion.

It's at this point that the politics and posturing come into play and where all sides - the governor, the unions, the Democrats - have a major investment in the crisis atmosphere: the governor because he's always wanted to drive a stake through the heart of crucial parts of the Proposition 98 formula; the unions and the Democrats because they want to increase pressure to raise revenues.

Then there's that $10.5 billion for the committee's new programs. It's a big number, but even if California magically got to do it tomorrow, which would raise the state above the national average in per-pupil spending, we'd still be nowhere close to high-spending (and economically comparable) states such as New York, New Jersey or Connecticut.

But in the context of the rest of the report, the number is at best hypothetical. The core findings and recommendations - California's weak achievement, inflexible categorical programs and perverse incentives that, in the words of committee chairman Ted Mitchell, are "compliance driven, not results driven" - deserve serious attention.

But there are also questions the committee didn't address: Are we measuring the right things or, as a growing number of critics charge, is the accountability process itself excessively narrowing - even dumbing down - the curriculum? Are teachers driven away and students flummoxed in high school because there's too much rote and not enough thinking in elementary school? Has the basics pendulum swung too far?

Committee members keep trying to avoid calling their incentive-driven reward proposals "merit pay," a phrase Mitchell correctly labeled "toxic." But maybe the question turns more on the curricular standards and criteria of student achievement - what kind of teaching and learning is rewarded. And ultimately, of course, it turns on whether the governor gives a damn.

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