March delivers three blows to California public school system

This month there has been little good news for the California public school system.  On March 4, California got word that the state’s bid for a piece of over $4 billion of the federal stimulus dollars available to improve education for the poorest students, the program known as Race to the Top, was denied.  Instead, fifteen states including New York, Pennsylvania and Louisiana as well as the District of Columbia were selected in the first round of Race to the Top dollars.  

California won’t know until April why it was rejected.  It is suspected that its proposed reforms were not strong enough.  The Governor has promised that it will seek more aggressive reforms and apply for the second round of funding in June.

A few days later on March 8, the California Department of Education released a preliminary list of 188 public schools that are considered “persistently lowest achieving” schools.  Performance is calculated based on how students perform on standardized tests.   Provisions under the federal stimulus funding require that the schools listed take specific actions such as replacing the principal and most of the staff, closing and sending the children to other schools, or closing and opening as a charter school.  However, the schools listed are now eligible for federal grants from $50,000 to as much as $2 million to improve their performance.  The list included 12 San Francisco schools, 20 in the East Bay and 35 in Los Angeles.

Last, a report released on March 25 by the Brookings Institution, Brown Center Report on American Education, found that California’s low-performing schools have shown little or no improvement for the 20 years between 1989 and 2009.  The report concluded that while California has made efforts to improve school performance, focusing solely test scores will make it nearly impossible to improve the situation.  The report also found that turning schools into charter schools makes little difference.  Data from 49 schools found that low reading and math scores persisted.

So where does that state go from here?  

The Governor and his allies oppose tax hikes to raise revenue and are betting on the federal government to come up with the dollars to invest in the state’s education system.  In the meantime, billions have been slashed from the state’s education budget,  teachers are being laid-off by the thousands, class size is ballooning, school weeks cut to four days and some close to even closing, putting the state’s six million children and the future of California at great risk.