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California Education Reform and Future Discussed at Forum

by Bob Morris, published

Panelists emphasized the pressing need for California education reform at the Future of Education in California forum held Aug. 30 in San Francisco, hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California. The panelists, State Superintendent of Public Administration Tom Torlakson and local superintendents Michael Hanson of the Fresno Unified School District and Sheila Jordan of the Alameda County Office of Education emphasized that change is needed and is coming at all levels.

The panelists agreed that California's education system faces multiple challenges with funding being crucial. California state universities have already reduced their budgets by 25%. State universities cannot have further cuts and remain competitive, producing highly educated students. Propositions 30 and 38 will be on the ballot in November and will provide desperately needed money for education. The panelists urged voting yes on both. (If both propositions pass, the one with the most votes becomes law.)

Hanson detailed how funding needs to be flexible and not earmarked solely for a specific purpose. As an example, Fresno saved $8 million on one project by doing it smarter and better, then used that money to increase the numbers of students in summer school. Educators need to do more with less in local environments by collaborating, which includes teaming up with universities to produce more teachers.

Torlakson emphasized that education does not occur in a vacuum. Important concerns like poverty, nutrition, students who do not speak English well, and a home atmosphere where reading is not encouraged all weigh against a child learning effectively. Chronic absenteeism is a major problem in some areas. In parts of Los Angeles the absentee rate reaches 19%. By the time absentee students are in the eighth grade they may have already missed a year of instruction and thus have fallen far behind.

Jordan made several key points. Nutrition and mental health programs can and should help children who need them. A Classroom First strategy means shifting some of the administrative burden away teachers and onto administrators. Finally, "American culture is parochial when it comes to multiple languages."

"Our Spanish-speaking kids are California. Period. Every day we waste not moving Heaven and Earth to get those kids bi-lingual and doing math at a high level we are slowly but surely burying ourselves," said Hansen. He recently travelled to Finland and was astonished to find that sixth graders there routinely speak three or four languages fluently. His district of Fresno has 85% poverty, 15% unemployment, and a continuing housing crisis. He states the dilemma clearly. "Do we truly want to invest in kids? If not then in 10 years the US will look more like California rather than vice versa."

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