The California Dream was built upon the solid foundation of quality, universal public education. People moved to California for the outstanding public schools. The comprehensive system of affordable two and four-year colleges and universities were the envy of the entire world. Investment in education paid off big returns for the state, fueling a burgeoning economy and a rising standard of living.
We need to do everything possible to look holistically at ways to improve our education system so every student has an opportunity to achieve their dreams.
Shatter the Political Ceiling
In 1988, California voters approved Proposition 98, which requires a minimum percentage of the state budget to be spent on K-12 education. Unfortunately, while Proposition 98 was meant to create a constitutional “floor” for education spending, it has turned into a political ceiling. As a result, California is grossly under-invested in public education.
Proposition 30, and its extension, has helped some, yet California still lags far behind the national average in per pupil expenditures. We simply must invest more in education.
It is also clear that local communities are willing to pay for better schools. The overwhelming success of local school bonds is testament to the fact voters recognize the tremendous unmet need. But building new schools is pointless if we don’t have the money to operate them. School districts or local communities should be empowered with the ability to raise revenues to meet their unique education needs, whether it be funding for educators and classified employees, school supplies or operating costs. We should reinforce the voters’ wise decision to lower the vote for local school construction funding from two-thirds to 55 percent by empowering communities to raise funds for their school budgets in the same manner.
The Teacher Shortage: Obtain, Train, Retain
In the last decade, California has experienced an unprecedented 75 percent decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs. Districts are facing alarming rates of teacher shortages.
We must expand our efforts to address growing teacher shortages—especially in the areas of STEM, special education, and ESL—by offering student loan forgiveness, helping classified employees earn their bachelor and teaching degrees, recruiting students out of high school to pursue teaching careers, and offering proven residency and mentoring programs that both improve teaching performance and dramatically increase retention rates.
Empower the Professionals
Classroom teachers are held accountable for student success. Yet they have very little control over many of the decisions that affect their students academically and affect them professionally. Curriculum, textbooks, in-service training, and many other critical issues are all in the control of school management.
We should embrace the practices of California’s world class public universities and establish Academic Senates in school districts to allow teachers to share in decision-making over textbooks, curriculum, in-service training, the hiring of principals and other critical policies.
We also must protect the collective bargaining rights of our educators, classified employees, professors, early childhood educators and child care providers. It is critically important that the people who interact with our students and children every day have a seat at the table and a voice on the job to advocate for the best conditions possible for our children to learn.
The Smartest Investment
For decades, research has confirmed that quality early childhood education programs not only make children more successful in school, but pay enormous dividends over time, including higher graduation rates, employment rates, wages, and tax revenues; lower welfare costs, health care costs, and crime rates.
California faces a critical shortage of affordable, high-quality child care. More than one million families currently qualify for subsidized child care, yet the state only serves 28 percent of those in need. For these families, child care is an absolute necessity in order to provide for their families. It is critically important that California address this economic justice issue.
We must work together to build a high quality, affordable child care system that addresses the needs of working families while ensuring our children have the solid foundations they need to succeed in kindergarten. We must also increase both the quantity and quality of California’s early childhood education programs and assure free access for all working families.
We also know that small class sizes are the key to improving student learning. We need to expand the Class Size Reduction program so our students have every opportunity to learn.
Return to our Community College Roots
The American Dream begins and ends with our ability to access education. Today, millions of students are losing out on that dream due to the financial burdens of student debt. Students are being pressured into pursuing careers that are not of interest to them to pay off the large bill that higher education now provides.
For generations, California’s community colleges were free, giving all people the opportunity to obtain higher education. But beginning in 1984, the state began charging enrollment fees for community colleges. Since that time enrollment fees have increased more than 800 percent. This is particularly tragic for California workers, who are displaced by economic upheavals and turn to the community colleges for retraining.
Cities and states across the nation are jumping on board and are finding innovative solutions to provide two free years of community college. California needs to find a way to get to that place, where we make community college free while ensuring students are on the right path through participation and graduation.
Leveling the Playing Field for All Students
Theoretically, all students should be prepared to take college entrance exams based on their core academic education. However, we know that students with families that can afford private college-prep test preparation classes have an unfair advantage when it comes to this standard of college admissions.
We must level the playing field for all students by making SAT/ACT preparation available to all public high school students as an elective class.
Save Now, Learn Later
A college education is increasingly critical in California’s growing high tech economy. Yet college costs and college debt are a growing burden on students and families, putting the dream of going to college further out of reach for many California families.
While we take steps to address the unsustainable rate of California state tuition, we must also incentivize families to establish a college savings account for every child by enacting refundable tax credits or other incentives. Students should also be allowed to refinance their private student loans to lower interest rate to alleviate the burden of student debt.
We also need to address underlying factors that have put stress on our education system— an unfair economy that has left the middle class behind; the inability of students and families to afford textbooks, supplies, food and housing; threats in Washington to public education, affordable health care, financial aid, and more.
Conditions of Children Matter. A Lot.
The best research suggests that only about one-third of student success is attributable to in-school factors. The other two-thirds is attributable to other factors: poverty; parent involvement; neighborhood conditions; health care; mental health; and the myriad of other factors that affect children and families. Too often school districts and other local governments operate in separate silos, and yet they serve the same populations of children, families and neighborhoods.
To reclaim the promise of quality education, we must ensure that children and their families have access to wraparound services to meet their social, emotional and health needs.