California school reform - Who's really for the kids?
By Peter Schrag -- Bee Columnist
Published 2:15 am PDT Wednesday, July 14, 2004
In a more reasonable world, SB 1419 would have never been proposed, let alone passed. The bill, which was signed by former Gov. Gray Davis two years ago, severely restricts the ability of local school districts to contract with private providers for transportation and other non-academic school services. As summarized by the independent School Services of California, "the limitations in the [law] ... make it virtually impossible for school districts to find the best-qualified and least expensive service to provide education support services." The cost to local districts - depending on whose numbers you use - could be as much as $300 million a year.
Now California Republicans, backed by a coalition of educational groups - the state school boards association and the state's school administrators, among others - are pushing hard to make repeal of the law a part of the state's budget negotiations.
By itself, the issue is not a big deal. SB 1419 is a job protection bill. But even the $300 million cost cited by the repeal proponents is far less than 1 percent of the state's total school spending. In many districts, if not most, the money saved is likely to go right on the bargaining table for teacher salaries and other employees.
But it's another symbol of how the clout of public employee unions, in this case the California School Employees Association, drains discretion from districts and money from crucial school programs and, as such ought to be an embarrassment to Democrats who profess a sincere desire to help kids.
Repeal of the law wouldn't require any more contracting out than districts wish to do; it would simply give them leeway to get the most for their money.
As it is now, said Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, if a new set of computers is delivered to a school and the district computer person isn't available to set them up, they sit in the box until he or she is available. If a drinking fountain or a toilet fails, the school can't call an outside plumber to fix it. So it sits unused until the school repair person shows up.
McCarthy says the reason the repeal is part of the budget process is that it's an element of so-called structural reform. He also points out that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for repeal in his State of the State message in January. But the more comprehensible explanation is that no stand-alone bill would make it through a Legislature in which the majority Democrats are so much dependent on public employee unions.
So far, it seems, no one has proposed a deal that would trade something the Democrats want - and that would, at the same time genuinely help schools - for the repeal.
The list of possibilities is endless: enough money to guarantee that every child has a full set of books to take home, clean classrooms, the beginnings of policies that would attract good teachers - not just those with credentials - to the high-poverty schools that need them most. Despite the thousands of able and dedicated people who are there now, high poverty schools still remain scandalously short of such teachers.
Every one of those items is on the list of horribles that Schwarzenegger's office is now negotiating with the plaintiffs in the Williams v. California case, the suit filed four years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of poor and minority children who are forced to attend California's dirty, overcrowded and dysfunctional schools. The case is an embarrassment to the state.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans have clean hands on schools. To understand that, all you have to do is visit a few, or read the depositions of the students in the Williams suit.
The GOP's responsibility is obvious: a rigid refusal over more than a decade to increase revenues to bring California's school funding to a level commensurate with comparable states and with its own resources and use that money to leverage real reform.
But so (with some rare exceptions) is the Democrats' tolerance of policies that constantly shoveled more money to the unions that lavishly supported them with hardly a gesture toward reform of policies that do everything to keep the weakest and least experienced teachers in high poverty schools and encourage the best to go where they're least needed.
The result is a system that pays the highest teacher salaries in the nation - salaries for the good and bad alike - but less on each child than the national average and far less than the major industrial states. The difference shows in every part of the system: the lack of books, materials, counselors, librarians, nurses, clean and adequately maintained classrooms and scandalously overcrowded facilities where kids go to school only 163 days a year instead of the standard 180.
In this mess, there ought to be lots of room to compromise on better schools. That would be real structural reform.
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