Cutting California from ‘Race to the Top’ is bad for the country

As I started reading The Times’ March 4 article, “California disqualified from receiving federal school funds,” I hoped the story would examine the devastating impact the Obama administration’s decision to disqualify our state from a round of “Race to the Top” grants would have on our schools and children. Instead, The Times devoted much of its story to finding explanations for why California was cut off from the first round of grants; the idea that reform-wary teachers unions deserve blame underlies many of the comments in the article. Those of us involved in education (I conduct research in mathematics education) are all too familiar with this type of finger-pointing, which does little to create public discourse about critical issues.

Everyone in the U.S. should care about the state of public education in California, and here’s why: Roughly 1 out of every 8 children in the United States lives in California. The 6.9 million school-age children here outnumber the total populations of all but 12 states. This fact should have given U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan some pause before making his decision.

It is hard to pinpoint the true costs of cutting off our schools from this money, but I do believe they are great. One major setback we can identify easily is the loss of our newest and often most energetic and passionate teachers, who work at the schools that need them most yet are the first victims of funding cuts.

Teachers are our front line. We ask them not only to teach our children core subjects (and hopefully some art and music as well), but they are also responsible for identifying children in need and students with learning disabilities, physical disabilities and less understood needs such as autism. Parents call on teachers to challenge and inspire their children. But how can they have the time, energy and resources to do so in the current environment?


Our newest teachers also benefit from college preparation programs developed from the latest research on how certain areas of an instructor’s content knowledge -- such as mathematics -- affect their students’ academic outcomes. As education training curricula have changed to better prepare our teachers, and as universities (such as my own) have begun to partner with school districts to create opportunities for teachers to learn this critical knowledge, we are at the same time having to watch these highly trained instructors -- the energetic, passionate, new and not-so-new -- lose their jobs. How do we measure the true costs of these cuts?

We are in effect causing a reduction in our workforce, especially in scientific fields, which will see a major increase in the demand for well-trained workers. California will have trouble attracting these engineers, geneticists, doctors and so on; after all, who would want to raise their children in a state with such a poor education system? An old neighbor of mine in Chicago who was an engineer turned down a high-paying job in San Diego, reasoning that it wasn’t worth living in a state with such poor schools. I have since found that my Chicago neighbors were not alone in their thinking.

Watching the country cannibalize itself by neglecting education reminds me of the Donner Party. We are feeding off our weak and young to prolong fiscal survival. We are burdening our children with a massive debt, while ensuring they are not smart enough to understand what we’ve done. We must be willing to say enough is enough; while we’re at it, we should encourage Duncan to go back to school and learn about orders of magnitude, so that when he cuts California, he understands the consequences for the rest of the country.

Bright children who love to learn go to schools in some of our poorest neighborhoods. I have seen them. Cutting education -- and cutting off our state from a round of federal grants -- will disproportionately affect these children. We will watch the gap between rich and poor grow wider as the great equalizer -- high-quality education -- becomes much harder to obtain. Our children’s future is in our hands, and our future is in their minds. Can we afford the costs of these cuts? Do the math.


Stacy Brown is a visiting professor of mathematics and mathematics education at Pitzer College and the program director of the Making Algebra Accessible Project.