Sacramento Can Help Education Even More by Starting to Do Less

James A. Fleming is superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District

Most Californians believe their state public school system is broken, but they aren’t sure who should fix it. This is one of the conclusions of a statewide poll conducted recently by Stanford University. I’d like to respectfully suggest that a framework already exists that, if ever allowed to function as intended, could solve the problem.

The approach: Put the brakes on California’s education regulation frenzy and return responsibility for public schools to local school boards.

Each year, California imposes mountains of regulations on school districts, while continuously eroding the few decision-making prerogatives left to local school boards. This loss of local control is then compounded by having four distinct Sacramento entities competing for state dominance in education: first, the governor, who has constitutional authority over state functions; then, an independently elected state superintendent, who has regulatory powers over education but is supposedly subordinate to the state Board of Education, whose members, it turns out, are appointed by the governor; the fourth player, the Legislature, then provides as many silver-bullet solutions to the problems of education as there are senators and Assembly members.

To illustrate the inconsistent and contradictory directives issued by this multiheaded state power structure, let’s examine just a few of the conflicting messages sent to school boards thus far in the ‘90s:


1990, Whole Language: Throw away those phonics books. We’ve discovered a way to teach reading called “whole language.” By simply exposing young children to complex literature, they’ll be motivated to read. Don’t worry about basics such as spelling. That will come later.

1992, Phonics: Oops, guess whole language wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. We’re going to return to a pure phonics-based approach. Sorry about all the teachers you’ll have to retrain and the “whole language” materials you’ll have to trash.

1993, California’s Language Assessment System Test: We need a California-produced test to be taken by all of our state’s schoolchildren. Rather than the usual multiple-choice type questions, we’ll make it primarily an essay exam. We’ll worry later about the logistics involved in grading essay tests for California’s 5.5 million public school children.

1995, District-based testing: Boy, did we ever mess up the CLAS test experience. We’ve learned our lesson about having a state-produced test. What we’ll do now is to grant each district the funding to buy, from a pre-approved list, its own test to meet local educational standards.


1997, Stanford 9 Test: We hope districts didn’t get too used to the various independently selected tests they have been using across the state. We’ve changed our minds (again). We will now have a single, commercially produced test for all California students. We’ll buy the Stanford 9 from Harcourt Brace, a bargain at only $35 million. Don’t be picky about the fact that the Stanford 9 is not aligned to California curriculum frameworks nor that students will be tested on material they haven’t been taught.

1998, Curriculum standards: The state Board of Education soon will be adopting brand-new academic standards. We will therefore cease using the Stanford 9 next year and devise yet a new test (the fourth in as many years), this one aligned to the new state standards.

1998, Irish Potato Famine: Let’s give school districts a solid dose of curriculum micro-management. We’ll pass Tom Hayden’s SB 514, requiring that California students learn all the facts about the Irish Potato Famine of 1848. Perhaps the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787 or the Civil War could be removed from the curriculum to make room. We’ll leave that controversial decision up to school districts.

1998, Charter schools: Public education is clearly overregulated. We’ll expand the “charter school” concept so that individual schools could be exempt from the growing body of regulations we impose. What’s that you say? Permit entire districts the opportunity to cut themselves loose from state red tape? Allow charter school districts? If school districts were able to achieve charter status, what would we do with the 6,780 pages of Education Code regulations we’ve devised to control everything they do?


The scenario just described would be laughable if it weren’t true. Many other illustrations of California’s education governance conundrum could be cited: mixed messages on bilingual education, math standards and reading textbooks, just to name three. Tragically, in the end, it is the schoolchildren of our state who suffer as the problem increases each passing year.

California should return to a time when local school boards decided most educational matters and were held accountable to local voters. The state should tell school districts what academic standards they wish to have met, get out of our way so we can do our job and then hold us accountable for results. Not only is this approach most consistent with our American ideal of local control, it just also might be what’s best for kids.