California public education is in deep crisis, but more to the point, a huge fiscal crisis. The depth of the lack of funding and its instability due to the economic downturn is unparalleled in my career. There is folk etymology that was popularized by John F. Kennedy that indicated when the word “crisis” is written in Chinese, one character means “danger” and the other means “opportunity.” For the sake of argument let’s say the etymology is true.
I think there is real danger by lowering the number of days students are in school by up to five days through the use of furloughs. Yet, I applaud the school districts that have worked together with union and management to gain this concession. However, reducing the number of days below most other first world countries, is dead wrong. An opportunity exists for California to discuss, with the upcoming gubernatorial elections, the length of an appropriate school year for developing 21st skills, including all students being required to learn a second or third language. We have yet to have a serious discussion about extending the school year in this state.
There is significant danger by eliminating summer school in 2010 for almost all districts and students, with few exceptions. This summer will be a long and hot one for too many children without access to free and appropriate summer school. In fact, the school lunch is sometimes the only full meal a child eats. This is an opportunity for CA to discuss folding summer school into a school year where all teachers work a full year teaching students. The opportunity to work a full year, let’s say 220 days, will increase teacher salaries by close to 20%. This increased salary would increase the pool of young college graduates who will go into teaching.
There is increased peril in the system by not giving teachers enough time for professional research and development. Districts could take up to 8 days for providing, hopefully, very high quality professional development about 8 years ago. The state has reduced the funding source so districts now only take 1-3 days and this figure is declining with the budget crunch. The opportunity here is to give teachers with a full year of work (220 days) at least 10 days to become involved in high quality R & D. These 10 days of R & D can work to increase student achievement results for all. It is always about the quality of instruction, not only the time in school that counts the most.
There is risk in the fact that with district’s deficits hitting record figures the number of layoffs of classroom teachers will be the highest in a generation. Based on the education code and teacher contracts the most senior and veteran teachers “bump” the newly hired teachers out of a job. A system of seniority makes some sense in some respects, however this is an opportunity to reevaluate the use of seniority and its effect on student achievement results. The issue for me is that we need to keep the very best teachers during down economic times or develop a stable funding model for schools. I am not convinced that a model of keeping teachers based on seniority is the best for children.
Proposition 13 reduced the local funding control of schools and switched most of the funding burden to Sacramento. Proposition 13 was laden with danger for centralizing the funding that was never meant to be this unstable. Schools to be world class MUST have a stable funding source from year to year. Since Proposition 13 was passed it has taken a “supermajority” of 2/3 vote to pass local parcel tax measures to increase local school funding. The opportunity here is to increase local funding for schools. Currently, signatures are being sought to qualify a statewide ballot initiative, the Local Control of Local Classrooms Funding Act, for the November election. I hate signing petitions for ballot referendums, but this one I will sign.
This crisis in public education begs for us to use it as an opportunity for all our children. Our elected leaders must be bold and courageous in order to show us the way out of the ditch we have dug.