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Educational Reform: Powerful Engine of Economic Growth

A failure in public education is eating away at California’s future competitiveness. Efforts to improve school curricula and student achievement are threatened because of an inadequately funded system stretched to its outermost limits. But the current recession is not all that is holding back improvements: Chronic structural problems, including bureaucratic inertia, impede California’s school system and threaten the state’s future.

Educational reform is not just about money. It is about retooling the education process to create the best environment for children to learn and thrive. The big challenge for California public schools is to respond to a vast, increasingly diverse student population with special needs that go well beyond those addressed in standardized textbooks. There must be a restructuring of a system long dominated by a one-size-fits-all philosophy implemented from the top down. Efforts at reforming schools nationwide must include aggressive state action such as in Kentucky, where the Legislature last year restructured the education system, instituting changes that included preschool for almost all poor children.

In California the task is complicated by funding limitations and the sheer size and complexity of the public school system. That network consists of more than 1,000 school districts with different structures, unions, histories, sizes and needs.

THE BUDGET SQUEEZE: California public education for kindergarten through 12th grade faces severe funding shortages exacerbated by the huge numbers of children flooding in; enrollment this year exceeds 5 million and is expected to rise by more than 200,000 every year during the next decade. The student population will grow increasingly diverse, with children from nonwhite racial and ethnic groups making up 65% of the total by the year 2000, up from the current 54%. Many of the students, especially in poor urban centers, need bilingual education as well as social and health services.

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The pressures of demographic trends already are taxing a school system that will spend an estimated $26.9 billion in 1991-92. Public schools suffered cutbacks last summer as the governor and Legislature scrambled to rectify a $14.3-billion budget deficit. The squeeze will continue next year. The state, which now foresees a $3-billion shortfall, funds 61% of the educational pie. Local funding through property taxes was capped by Proposition 13 in 1978.

Reform efforts began in 1983 with an overhaul of curriculum content and improving student achievement. The passage of Proposition 98 in 1988 assured education a predictable slice--about 40%--of state general revenues, which have been shrinking with the recession. There has been considerable improvement in California test scores and dropout rates, but the state has a long way to go. Transferring decision-making to school sites is catching on as a means to improve education at a faster clip.

SCHOOL-BASED MANAGEMENT: The consensus among educators, administrators and business is that local schools and teachers know how best to develop learning activities for their students. Giving individual schools oversight over budget, staffing and other matters now typically handled at the district level is considered to be the foundation for local management.

In 1990, the Senate passed a bill, authored by Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) and supported by the California Business Roundtable, to establish demonstration programs for restructuring schools. The state received an unexpected 1,500 applications from schools that wanted to be among the 210 selected to share $6.3 million in planning grants to design their own reform programs.

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Separately, school-based management programs are in progress in a number of school districts throughout California, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Fresno. Programs vary--one has ungraded classes, another full-day kindergarten.

NEW FRONTIERS: Some of the restructuring efforts are directed toward integrating the delivery of social services through schools. That’s the goal of programs such as New Beginnings at San Diego’s Alexander Hamilton Elementary School, where health care and other services are offered. And the California Business Roundtable has offered an intriguing proposal, already in operation in some private and lab schools, that would replace conventional kindergarten and first grade with a preschool program open to all children between ages 4 and 6.

Even with reforms, schools will need additional funding. But Proposition 13 demands a two-thirds vote to raise local taxes. That should be amended for schools. In Sacramento, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6 (ACA 6) would allow a simple majority vote to create bond issues for new schools and jails.

Local school control will involve more and more citizens, and people can be receptive to new taxes when they think they will do any good. Last year, 34 school districts had local funding measures on the ballot. Only 10 passed by a two-thirds vote. But 21 of the 24 defeated measures received solid majorities. ACA 6 would help.

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The temptation in the face of California’s continuing budget woes is to put restructuring programs on hold. That would be a mistake. And Californians must make the sacrifice to educate their children properly or pay the price a thousandfold in the quickly approaching 21st Century.


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