January 14, 2005

Schwarzenegger’s Big Speech Misses The Mark on Education

By Donal Brown


California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had a chance to mount an imaginative and energetic campaign to solve the state’s education crisis, but instead retreated to stale proposals in his State of the State Address on Jan. 5.

Schwarzenegger disappointed advocates in his brief comments on education by failing to address the poor test scores of California’s students or propose viable ways to improve performance.

A Rand Corporation study released Jan. 3 reveals that although California’s K-8 students have made gains in national achievement tests in math and reading, the state still ranks near the bottom of the 50 states, above only Louisiana and Mississippi.

These results should have set off the alarm bells for Schwarzenegger and set his staff working on some solutions. But in his address, the governor bragged that the state spent $50 billion on education in 2004, and this year $2.9 billion more.

“There is no revenue problem,” Schwarzenegger said. “We have a spending problem.” Thus he vowed not to raise taxes, and laid the foundation for cuts in education, given the $8 billion deficit still facing the state.

Schwarzenegger ignored the Rand Corp.’s findings that California’s spending per student has fallen below the national average since 1970, and ranked 27th in per-student spending in 2001-2002. This spending level persists even though California faces greater challenges than other states because it must educate a large immigrant population. The 2002 Census revealed that 5.8 percent of California school-aged children had trouble speaking English, compared with a national average of 2.5 percent.

One-on-one is the most effective teaching method and one of the surest ways to reach these immigrant children. But it costs money to reduce class size so that teachers can get around the room to give individual attention. And it costs a lot to hire teacher aides.

To his credit, in his address Schwarzenegger did say he wanted to reward teachers for their hard work and promised a merit pay system. He did not say how he was going to fund it. As the Rand study pointed out, the real average annual teacher salary in California during 2000-2001 — $39,000 — is the same as it was in 1969-70 when adjusted for inflation. That salary hardly attracts the best and brightest to the classroom, especially given the cost of housing in the state. Would it not be more sensible to raise teacher’s salaries across the board rather than just reward a few?

At a time when evidence is mounting that charter school students perform no better than their peers in larger public schools, Schwarzenegger pushed a pledge to open more charter schools.

Schwarzenegger wants to avoid taxes, but by raising revenues through taxes on those who can best afford them he could wipe out the deficit and invest in the state’s future. California will face certain decline if this generation of students flounders in mediocrity. And if the deficit rides into the next decade, it will be impossible to meet the challenges facing the state.

If Schwarzenegger values teachers, he should find a way to empower them to obtain books, teaching materials and comfortable and clean classrooms. All teachers suffer shortages at least once in their careers, and many reach into their own pockets to buy basic classroom supplies for their students throughout the year.

If Schwarzenegger values students, he should make sure that every inner city student has a fully trained and experienced teacher. To attract teachers during the current shortage, according to the Rand report, districts are lowering their standards. Just 46 percent of school districts in California now require teachers to have full standard certification in the subjects they teach. Many of these unprepared teachers teach in the cities. These teachers must receive training, and once trained, the merit pay should go to them.

Studies show parental involvement is a key factor in the success of kids at school. If Schwarzenegger values parents — including those who do not speak English well — he should devise programs to reach and motivate parents to establish a culture in California that values education. Students must come to school ready to learn and eager to do homework. Otherwise, no excellent teacher, upgraded facility or reduced class size will make a difference.

Educational excellence takes money and imagination. Not enough of either appeared in the governor’s proposals on education this week.

Donal Brown taught in California’s public schools for 35 years.

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