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Charting a course for schools

California has the chance to change the path of education, thanks to two little-noticed trends

By Daniel Weintraub, Sacramento Bee Columnist, June 12, 2005

2007 Enrollment Editorial by Dan Walters

For California, the coming decades will be a time of enormous changes, many of them unprecedented in scope. Over the next few months, Daniel Weintraub will explore the dynamics of these changes, the challenges and opportunities that they pose for California and what the state must do now to prepare for them.

SAN DIEGO - Sometimes it seems as if California's political class never stops fighting over the public schools. But even as that battle turns into what looks like a struggle to the death between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the teachers unions, there is reason to hope that the coming decade eventually will bring an end to the education wars.

Amid the unrelenting rancor that dominates the landscape today, two little-noticed trends hold the potential to transform the way we think about the schools. One is a pause in enrollment growth. After years of breathtaking increases, the slowdown now forecast should give the state much-needed financial breathing room, allowing for a dramatic but painless boost in the money taxpayers spend for each of the more than 6 million students in our schools.

The other trend is the emergence of charter schools, the product of a simple but promising reform that does more by doing less, freeing teachers, students and parents from the clutches of state politicians who can't keep themselves from micromanaging every aspect of education policy.

More about the money in a moment. First, look at what is happening in San Diego, where determined parents are showing how people in some of the state's toughest neighborhoods can take back their schools from the bureaucracy.

Michelle Evans, 35, says the schools let her down. Promoted through the grades without having to achieve, she dropped out of high school barely able to read and write. But she is a fiercely proud woman, and she was not about to let the same thing happen to any of her three children, or to her community - the long-depressed Chollas View section of this otherwise wealthy city.

"Public education as it stands now is not working for minority children," says Evans, who is African-American. "It's not."

So earlier this year, Evans helped marshal a massive grass-roots campaign that culminated in a declaration of education independence in her neglected neighborhood. More than 700 parents representing about 70 percent of children in the Gompers Secondary School attendance area, signed petitions demanding that the San Diego Unified School District relinquish control of the campus and hand it over to a board of parents, teachers, academics and community activists. After initially resisting, the district's trustees approved the request.

This fall, the site will reopen as Gompers Middle Charter School under a partnership with University of California, San Diego. It will have a longer school day, many new teachers and high expectations. The school will combine intense instruction in basic subjects with strong discipline and close attention to the problems many children from this area deal with outside of school.

Three other San Diego neighborhood groups took control of their schools the same day Gompers did. And what is happening here increasingly is happening throughout California. Parents, it seems, are less willing to accept a public school system that cannot or will not help their children succeed. This has always been the case in affluent neighborhoods, where families could turn to private schools if they were dissatisfied with what the government offered them. But now parents in poorer communities are finding the tools that allow them to do much the same thing within the public school system.

The trend is picking up steam at a moment of peril and opportunity for the schools and for California.

The danger comes from a persistent achievement gap between white children and minorities, and between the rich and the poor, just at a time when the schools are becoming dominated by more students of color. If those groups continue to perform as they have been, the schools will be turning out more and more people incapable of competing in a global economy.

But the flip side of those same demographic trends is a decline in the state's birth rate and thus a drop in projected enrollment growth. While the most recent estimates by the Department of Finance and the Legislative Analyst's Office make this clear, the implications for state fiscal policy have not yet penetrated the Capitol's budget debates, in part because those discussions are so dominated by short-term thinking.

The pause will come at a good time. Since 1995, California's public school enrollments have climbed by more than 20 percent, adding more than 1 million students. But over the next decade, if projections are accurate, the schools will grow by a little more than 3 percent, adding about 200,000 pupils to today's enrollment of about 6.3 million. To put that difference in perspective, consider that during just two years in the 1990s - from 1993 through 1995 - the schools grew by as much as they are expected to grow over the next 10 years.

This enrollment plateau means California, over time, ought to be able to spend more on the schools, measured on a per-pupil basis, without taking away from other programs or raising taxes, because the economy should be growing much faster than the number of students. Think of the state as a family whose income grew every year for 10 years, while adding another child each year as well, straining the finances. But if that family's pay keeps growing at the same pace while they have no more children, there will be more money to go around for everybody.

Thus, if California's economy grows by an average of 3 percent a year, school funding per student could climb by 25 percent over the next decade even if public education gets the same share of the state's economic output that it does today. That's $1,800 more per student in today's dollars -a demographic dividend.

The public schools' claim on that money is not automatic. Health care costs keep rising. And even as K-12 enrollments flatten, the colleges will see a bigger enrollment surge, requiring more resources. Those needs could erode the state's ability to do more for the schools. But chances are, kindergarten through 12th grade education will do fine, fiscally speaking, as long as the economy continues to grow at the typical average rate.

The question is what to do with that new money if it comes. It probably doesn't make sense to keep spending it the way we spend money on schools today, since by broad agreement, public education today needs more than just money to improve.

According to a recent study by the RAND Corp., California's students placed third from the bottom on the average score in the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, ahead of only Louisiana and Mississippi. Even when the state's difficult demographics are taken into account, California is near the bottom. The state's black students and non-Hispanic whites, according to RAND, are the lowest performing in the nation, and Hispanic students here outperform Hispanic students in just four other states. A recent Harvard University report, meanwhile, showed that only about 60 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate from high school.

What should we do about it? In my conversations with parents, teachers, administrators, academics and lawmakers about education policy, I hear almost as many prescriptions for school reform as there are schoolchildren.

Some will say the answer is in a "back-to-basics" curriculum that focuses on core knowledge of reading, writing and math. Others insist that this traditional approach ignores the "whole child" and risks boring students who need to see how what they are learning connects to the world around them. Still others point out that since not every child is going to college, we need more and better vocational training, or that music and arts education ought to be expanded.

The debate also covers logistics. Some education experts believe that nothing will change until the schools abandon a century-old model based on the agricultural calendar, with summers off and long stretches of school in the winter months. There is a case to be made for longer school days, Saturday school, smaller classes, smaller schools, team teaching. Many teachers believe that more parental involvement at home and more discipline in the schools are crucial. If you can think of a way to change the way public schools work, there is probably someone out there who says it would improve public education - and someone else who thinks it would ruin the schools.

But these wars need not go on forever. A state of 36 million people and growing does not need one set of education rules that we insist must work equally well for everyone.

Instead, California could dramatically pare state control over the way schools are run, ending the incentive policymakers in the Capitol now have to tell local districts what to do. The state has already set detailed standards reflecting what we, as a society, want our children to learn in each grade and by the time they graduate from high school. Annual testing tells us whether they have achieved those goals. Now local districts, the schools themselves and parents should be given a chance to meet those standards without further meddling from Sacramento. The resulting innovation would likely provide many models for success.

At a minimum, districts should be able to opt out of most of the state Education Code if the children in their schools are making progress toward meeting state standards. If schools are doing what we want them to do, why should we care how they are doing it, other than to try to replicate their performance elsewhere? But since school districts themselves can be dysfunctional, it also makes sense to return as much freedom as possible to parents so they can make choices for their children.

One way to start is to have the dollars follow every child to his or her school rather than giving each district a lump sum based on its total enrollment.

The way it works now, teacher contracts value seniority, and seniority rights tend to drive experienced teachers away from tough schools in disadvantaged communities. The result: Those schools employ more teachers who have less experience and who are paid less. If the dollars went to the schools first, and the schools were able to pay competitive salaries, they might use the extra money to keep more veteran teachers in their ranks. Or they could spend the money on something else, like a fully trained aide in every classroom.

But changing the financing scheme in that way, from the inside, would be laborious and uncertain. It would require every school to have a manager trained in finance and the freedom to hire its own teachers and pay them a salary that was not part of a fixed schedule. Enacting such a change for every school in the state would be impossible in the current political environment.

Fortunately, though, state law already allows something very similar on a case-by-case basis. The charter school is the ultimate in local control within public education. It is the method those San Diego parents used to break free from state and school district management.

Charter schools are public schools exempt from most state and local education regulations. They are typically formed by parents and teachers with support from the community. They have a vision, laid down in the charter, for how they are going to operate. Like all schools, they are held accountable for results. But they are more or less free to achieve those results in any way they like. They manage their own budgets, hire and fire teachers at will, and contract for services they do not want to provide themselves.

Gary Hart, a former teacher, state legislator and education adviser to former Gov. Gray Davis, carried the bill that opened the door to charter schools in the early 1990s, after years of trying unsuccessfully to reform education from the top down. After reading that teachers union giant Albert Shanker was a fan of the idea, Hart, a Democrat, figured it would be the perfect way to free teachers to practice their profession at the highest level.

"I was getting tired of being beaten up by these education groups always saying, 'You guys in Sacramento are always passing these bills. If you would just leave us alone so we could do our jobs and be educators, we could be doing a much better job,' " Hart told me recently. "I thought charters were a great way to call their bluff, to give them a great opportunity to work in a different environment with very few constraints."

Hart had in mind teachers like Mary McGown.

A veteran of more than 25 years in education, McGown now teaches at the Rocklin Academy, a charter school in the suburbs outside Sacramento. Although the school has a tight vision and a curriculum built around the core knowledge concept, she says she loves her job because of the freedom she has to innovate in the classroom and the way she is treated.

"The biggest thing for me is really building and contributing to something that is going to make a difference, to know that what I do makes a difference," McGown says. "I am valued as a professional and not just someone that's delivering a package that's given to me. I help create that package."

The beauty of the charter school concept is that there can be as many packages as there are schools. The concept was slow to take hold, partly because of constraints in the early law, and only about 100 charter schools were created in the first five years. But now there are 512 statewide. One in 20 public schools in California is a charter, and one out of every 50 students attends one. Each is unique.

Gateway Charter in San Francisco serves more than twice as many students with learning disabilities as the average school but is still one of the city's highest performing schools. Eagle Peak school in Walnut Creek uses the Montessori model and downplays standardized testing. The Mare Island Technology Academy in Vallejo focuses on teamwork while also testing students regularly to diagnose their progress toward meeting standards.

View Park Preparatory, in a poor, heavily minority neighborhood of Los Angeles, mimics college-prep private schools and turns out high-achieving graduates. And so on.

It's safe to assume that this is only the beginning, since more and more support is building for the concept. A charter school association provides tips and back-up for newcomers and puts creators in touch with start-up financing. The governor's office is proposing to turn control of dozens of failing schools back to parents and communities. And proposals to let a state agency and public universities authorize charters would speed creation of the schools in places where the local district is reluctant to allow them.

The idea seems to fit into a broader societal trend. In so many other aspects of our lives, from things as important as investing and health care or as trivial as travel and music, individuals are taking advantage of the information revolution to seize more control over products that used to be handed down to them from on high. We have begun to see that in education, as parents who learn about the performance of schools across town or across the state demand to know why their neighborhood school cannot do as well.

And that data-rich environment is only getting richer. Eventually, the state plans to assign every student a unique number that will allow his or her performance to be tracked from one school district to another and over time, allowing researchers to dig deeper into what works and what doesn't. Public and private databases, meanwhile, are making it easier to compare the performance of one school with another, even how students in one grade level at one school compare in particular skills, say, adding fractions, with similar students at another school in a different part of the state.

That sort of information sharing leads parents to demand that the schools do more to improve their children's performance, and that demand is fueling the charter school movement.

A debate still rages about whether charter school students perform better than those in traditional public schools. In some sense that's an irrelevant question, because the charter model governs how schools are run, not how they teach. And the whole purpose of charters is to add variety and competition to the public school system with the goal of getting traditional schools to improve. If they do, charters will never leave them in the dust.

Nonetheless, charter schools as a group should eventually build a performance edge and maintain it over time because they have one big advantage that traditional schools generally do not: They can fail. If a charter school's students are not performing well, the school can be shut down, either because it loses its clientele or the district revokes the right to operate. Only the strong will survive. That almost never happens to traditional schools, unless, like Gompers in San Diego, they are being converted to a charter.

And that's what makes Gompers such an interesting test case. A recent study of the Preuss School, the UC San Diego school that will serve as a model for Gompers, found that students who applied for the school's admissions lottery but didn't get in fared as well at their neighborhood schools as did those who were accepted at Preuss. While the data are preliminary, they suggest it is not so much the school as the family and the student that makes the difference. Anyone motivated enough to seek out a charter is likely to do well wherever he or she ends up.

But what if the charter school seeks out the student, and not the other way around? At Gompers, hundreds of low-performing neighborhood kids whose families never would have sent them to the fancy school on a university campus across town are about to be exposed to the same program now established at UCSD. They will escape it only if they opt out, and few are likely to do so. If they do better than did their predecessors at the local school, it ought to be solid evidence that the school has improved while the student body remained more or less the same.

Michelle Evans thinks that is exactly what will happen.

"All of our kids are capable of learning," Evans told me. "Not just those few. Not just a handful. ... I feel like next year is going to be a culture shock for the kids. But it's going to be a great thing."

If it does turn out to be a great thing, the Gompers experiment could be a model for returning the power in education to the people, asking more of them in return for the right to run their own schools, and then holding them accountable for the results. If that's the future of public education, California could do a lot worse.

Enrollment stagnates -- what next?

California has the chance to change the path of education, thanks to two little-noticed trends

By Dan Walters, Sacramento Bee Columnist, February 10, 2007

The baby bust -- the end of the 20-year post-World War II baby boom -- hit California's public schools in 1970. Over the next decade, enrollment dropped by a half-million students -- bottoming out at 3.9 million -- and schools were shuttered throughout the state.

It turned out, however, not to be a new paradigm but merely a lull before a new demographic surge, thanks to a wave of immigration and a sharp uptick in the birth rate. Since 1980, schools have seen their enrollments shoot upward by 2.4 million students, a 62 percent growth outstripping overall population.

Classroom space was strained and there was a huge change in the cultural makeup of students due to the impact of immigration. Moreover, the enrollment boom occurred as the governance and financing of schools also were changing radically, thanks largely to the passage of Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot measure that caps property taxes.

Financing shifted largely to the state. With the shift, governors and legislators began exercising more control over curriculum and other matters. That was especially true after voters in 1988 passed Proposition 98, the landmark measure that specifies how much money schools must receive each year.

Enrollment is at a plateau, at least for the moment. After hitting 6.3 million in 2004, it has virtually stagnated, even dropping by a few thousand. The cause is an erosion in births in the 1990s, from a peak of nearly 612,000 babies in 1990 to as low as 518,000 in 1999. It is, however, merely another demographic lull, because births have picked up again to over 550,000 a year.

Some districts in older suburbs are closing schools as enrollments decline. But the enrollment pause also has positive aspects, such as allowing per-pupil spending to increase. Including federal funds, California is expected to top $11,500 in per-pupil spending under the budget Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled this month. For the first time in a long time, school finance will not be a Capitol preoccupation. But schools remain prominent in the political consciousness.

Money, after all, should merely be the means to the end of academic achievement. California's students, especially those from African American, Latino and low-income families, are trailing badly, as Jack O'Connell, the state's superintendent of public instruction, highlighted this week in his annual appraisal of the schools.

Simply put, California schools work pretty well for middle- and upper-income white and Asian American students, not well for others.

O'Connell and Schwarzenegger say they want to find out why there's an "achievement gap" and what can be done to close it -- a subject of much angst and conflict among education wonks. O'Connell says he's convening a panel of experts to recommend curative approaches. An exhaustive, foundation-sponsored study of California's schools has already been completed and is being kept under wraps as a select few politicians and educators weigh its recommendations.

Inevitably, the debate will turn back to money, either redirecting what we already spend to focus attention on low-performing students and their schools, or expanding the pot, perhaps through new taxes. Hopefully, however, we can talk about other factors, because it's evident that more than money is involved.

As national data prove, there's virtually no correlation between per-pupil spending and academic achievement when one examines both on a state-to-state basis.

The foundation project and the O'Connell initiative should be fulcrums for a real debate over what's needed before the next surge in enrollment arrives. They shouldn't be merely rationalizations for throwing more money at the system, as the powerful education lobby preaches.


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Last modified: February, 2007

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