Too many political cooks spoil California's educational broth
By Dan Walters, Sacramento Bee Columnist, July 3, 2005
Remember the old adage about "too many cooks spoiling the broth"? One need look no further than California's largest and most vital public enterprise, the education of 6 million youngsters in its public schools, for validation. It would be an oversimplification - but not much - to conclude that as California has added additional layers of political and bureaucratic direction, including an Education Code so obtuse that it would give a Talmudic scholar heartburn, academic performance has declined in rough proportion.
Almost everyone in politics claims some share of the power to dictate what happens in the classroom, and the list is expanding constantly. Just recently, the newly elected mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, suggested that he should be empowered to appoint the city's school board, rather than have its members elected.
Starting with Pete Wilson in the 1990s, governors have been increasingly acquisitive of educational authority. Wilson created a schools adviser within his office and made no secret of his desire to wrest authority from the elected superintendent of public instruction. His two successors have more or less continued in that vein, using the budget to dictate how the billions of dollars in state aid would be spent.
Gubernatorial intrusion had the effect of downgrading the state schools superintendency, as did a court decision that made the state school board, appointed by the governor, independent of and perhaps superior to the superintendent in setting overall state pedagogic policy.
Legislative committees also play a major role in setting school policy, as do powerful outside groups such as the California Teachers Association. At the local level, there are county superintendents of schools, county school boards, and local school districts and their appointed superintendents and other administrators. And the federal government, through "No Child Left Behind," has written its own prescription for classroom teaching. But as the number of overseers expands, all chanting the mantra of "accountability," real accountability has diminished and buck-passing has flourished.
When anything good happens in public education, which is rare, everyone clamors for credit, but when bad things happen, which is much more common, everyone points the finger of responsibility at someone else. And there's been a lot of finger-pointing lately, because the news has been mostly negative, especially when it comes to comparing outcomes, as measured by tests, of California kids to those of other states.
As the deterioration of academic performance became a hot political topic in the 1990s, not only were fingers of blame pointed, but everyone involved weighed in with a fix-it scheme, and many of them were adopted - high school exit exams, charter schools, smaller class sizes and billions of dollars in targeted "categorical" aids. The proliferating decrees from Sacramento, however, totally ignored the ever-expanding diversity of culture, linguistic fluency, ethnicity, economic status and academic aptitude among students.
"The system assumes a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to teaching," says Scott Plotkin, who runs the California School Boards Association. Plotkin spoke at a recent hearing conducted by the state Little Hoover Commission, which is considering a formal study of school governance.
It is a fine mess. If we had deliberately set out to create a system that is utterly devoid of rationality, accountability, flexibility - and true concern for millions of California kids - we could not have done a worse job.
Public education may be the most graphic example of the state's larger crisis of governance, California's chronic and expanding inability to recognize and confront vital public policy issues. Its overabundance of conflicting policies and policymakers mirrors the civic and political gridlock that has blocked effective responses to traffic congestion, water supply, housing and other pressing matters.
We need to put process in the secondary role it deserves, cut through the interlocking forces, and establish clearer lines of authority and accountability for outcomes. And we need it most urgently in public education, as, one hopes, the Little Hoover Commission will conclude.
Schools are for children but adults get in way
By Ruben Navarrate, San Diego Union Columnist, June 26, 2005
Two Los Angeles-based radio talk show hosts almost put their finger on the problem with the public school system and why those who try to reform it run into brick walls.
Here's how one of them put it: "It's like the only thing that matters is what's good for the adults, and not what's good for the kids."
Bingo. It always comes back to this: the competing interests of the adults who work in the school system with those of the students supposedly served by that system.
The trouble was that the radio jocks – John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou – didn't go far enough in advancing that argument. Instead, they got hung up on what got them talking about education in the first place: a newspaper story about the $250,000 annual salary of a school superintendent in Southern California. It bothered the hosts that the superintendent was pulling down this hefty salary while students were being squeezed into portable classrooms.
Here's what should have bothered them: It's not just money, it's that this habit of putting adults first spills into everything. It helps explain why educators are quick to dig in and fight off any proposed reform, from testing to merit pay to fixing special education.
You name it, and the reason that it's creating friction or meeting resistance is because it pits the interests of adults against those of children. And in the public school system, the adults run the show.
I heard the same thing about 10 years ago during a frank and honest exchange with a Mexican-American school superintendent in Central California. He told me that the way the educational system was set up, everything is done – or, in case of reform efforts, often not done – to serve the adults who depended on that system for their livelihoods.
And I heard the same thing from departing San Diego Unified School Superintendent Alan Bersin, a hard-charging reformer who resigned recently after losing a shoving match with teachers unions and their allies on the school board. The thing is, Bersin is no pushover. A former U.S. attorney, he's a tough guy who has prosecuted corporate criminals and drug dealers and organized crime figures. You would think that, in him, the unions who barter and trade on what President Bush calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations" would have finally met their match.
Think again. The more Bersin tried to hold schools accountable and set performance goals for students, the more the unions made him a target. He drafted a "blueprint" on how to raise student performance, and the unions leveled so much criticism against it – and against him – that before long, he was black and blue. Eventually, he lost favor with a majority of the five-member school board, and then it was only a matter of time before he was forced out.
Now Bersin is headed to Sacramento, having been appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve as California secretary of education. Recently, Bersin met with the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and shared some lessons he picked up from locking horns with those who fight for the status quo. Americans have to decide what they want from schools, he said.
"Is public education going to be an enterprise that gives adults what they want for their jobs, or is it to be something that serves children?" he asked.
One thing that helps tip the balance in favor of the first option is the fact that teachers unions have their fingers in school board elections.
I first heard about this insidious practice about a year ago when I spoke to a group of school board members about the federal education reform law, No Child Left Behind. After my talk, one of the members approached me and, trying to explain why the reaction had been so hostile, revealed that school board candidates often get contributions from teachers unions, which strongly oppose No Child Left Behind.
Bersin acknowledged that the unions contribute to school board elections in San Diego, though he said they were merely taking advantage of an "opportunity that the system provides them."
That is too kind. Here's the drill. The unions scratch the backs of school board members, who reciprocate by scratching the eyes out of reformers like the superintendent – thus easing the pressure on teachers.
That part of the education system isn't so complicated. In fact, it's as easy as ABC – as in Absolutely Broken & Corrupted.
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