Good public education has long been a staple of American democracy and social mobility; but that promise is increasingly threatened. Nowhere is this more evident than in the state where I live, California. The Golden State’s educational system from kindergarten to the university was affordable and excellent for decades; but today we have a system that works for a privileged few but is failing the majority.
The UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA) has been tracking the state of California’s middle and high schools for years, pointing to the overall appalling outcomes for students and “opportunity gap” between the primarily higher-income white schools and primarily lower-income African American and Latino schools.
IDEA’s latest California Educational Opportunity Report highlights the latest trends.
• California ranks near the bottom of states in terms of education in many categories: 48th in 4th grade reading level, 47th in 8th reading level, 46th for 4th grade mathematics, and 45th for 8th grade math level.
• For those students who started 9th grade in California in 2003, just 65% graduated four years later, just 25% graduated ready for college, and just 14% were in a Cal Sate University or University of California campus a year after graduation. The outcomes for African Americans and Latinos are even worse.
• California ranks among the bottom three states in numbers of students for every school counselor, in student-teacher ratios, and average high school class size.
Besides just the normal misery index of data, the report provides insights from focus groups with parents of public school students throughout the state. One mother shared:
“Years ago when I was in elementary school, California was one of the leading states in education. Now it’s at the bottom. I look at the opportunities that are there now versus what used to be and it’s just sad, it’s not there anymore.”
Just as sad is the fact that while these opportunities aren’t there for most people, they are for a select few. Another mother in one of the focus groups confessed:
“I agree with everybody as far as the gloom, but…I got lucky [with my children’s school]…It makes a big difference where the school is.”
It shouldn’t matter where the school is, or if you are rich or poor, white, African American, Latino, or Asian. These problems and trends, of course, aren’t unique to California: schools across our nation are failing our students.
As a parent of two children in a public elementary school – in Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest district in the nation with a myriad of problems – I obviously care about the state of our education. But, I contend that even those who have kids in private schools or don’t have kids in school at all should be very concerned as well.
If this current economic crisis has taught us anything, it has shown how fragile our economic system is, a system that depends on innovation to compete in a global marketplace, but in an ethical, sustainable way. A big wave of highly-skilled baby boomers will be retiring over the next couple decades, and we need to replace them with a prepared workforce that can help our economy not implode like it has over the last few months. Businesses need skilled employees, we all need doctors, teachers and other public servants. Where are we going to find these workers? They’re in our schools today, so we better invest in them to increase equal opportunity to raise the level for all our students.
Postscript: In today’s LA Times, Michael Hiltzik contends that cuts to the university systems in California are undermining the state’s economic future.