It's clear that school budgets are woefully inadequate and underfunded. But, will simply throwing money at a system that is flawed, broken, and unequal successfully nurture the academic achievement of under-performing students? The great state of California has the third highest student teacher ratio in the country and the dubious distinction of coming in dead last in total school staff - principals, teachers, guidance counselors, and librarians. Lack of adequate resources is exacerbated by grave inequalities in many school districts throughout the state. Often under-performing schools suffer from a lack of qualified teachers, textbooks, access to a curriculum that prepares students for college, and safe school environments.
Wealthier public school districts raise money through fundraising foundations and parent organizations to supplement what schools get from the Federal and State Government and from local property taxes. These groups have historically helped parents in affluent areas enrich school curricula and provide the expensive classroom equipment and resources their school districts cannot afford. These supplementary contributions and parent involvement help create an academic environment more similar to a costly private school education.
Last year, at USC's Education Crisis Summit "Securing Our Competitiveness in the Global Market," Superintendent Thelma Melendez of Pomona Unified School District stressed the importance of finding new ways to reach the large and growing population of Latino students in public schools. Among 18-24 year olds in California, Latinos are the most likely to have no high school diploma and are the least likely to go to college. What most people refer to as an ‘achievement gap', Melendez calls "a problem of watered-down expectations."
California's separate and unequal system of education, where low-income students and students of color do not have access to the same education as their wealthier white peers, is a critical issue I've recently confronted for my own family. The rural Central California town where we live was a choice based on affordability and a desire to have a little space to grow our own fruits and vegetables and live in peace and quiet. As it turns out, our neighborhood and our schools are predominantly Latino. The local culture is something I've enjoyed - watching families pass by our house on horseback, seeing the rodeo that often takes place on Sundays down the road, and the delightful surprise of hearing a mariachi band practicing on weekends across the street.
Yet recently I've discovered a real downside to where we live - our local schools. The elementary school where our child will attend scores well below state averages on everything from English proficiency to math scores. It's above average only in negative attributes such as class sizes and the number of students participating in the free lunch program.
California Public School rankings are based on data from an Academic Performance Index (API) which are then compared to all other schools in California and given a rating from 1 to 10 (1 being the worst, 10 the best). While our school has a rank of 3, thirty minutes down the road in a predominantly white, comparatively affluent community, the local public school has rank of 10. Besides this dramatic difference in state ranking, a separate statistic that I haven't been able to shake is the parental graduation rate. In our elementary school 41% of the parents have not graduated high school. A mere 1% have the same graduate level education as I have. Thirty minutes down the road you find the exact opposite - 48% of the parents have gone to graduate school and only 1% have not graduated high school.
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This discrepancy must be factored into any solution that hopes to offer all students in California the same fundamental opportunity to learn and achieve educational success. When low parental graduation rates and language barriers exist, school is the place where students must receive the additional support and guidance needed for academic achievement. If students don't get educational support in the home, money must be allocated and resources used to create and supplement the educational experience at school.
Before I moved to Central California I lived in Los Angeles and was a teacher at a very wealthy and prestigious university preparatory day school. It was academically rigorous and I had both the luxury and the challenge of being innovative everyday or risk student boredom. All coursework was designed by teams of teachers to build curriculum that pushed the envelope on what we could expect from middle and high school students. In addition to receiving competitive salaries, teachers were compensated for annual professional development coursework and travel.
But it was not the academics that continually amazed me year in and year out. It was everything else that came with being a student at this school - the extracurricular activities, the exposure to arts and culture, the study skills, the physical education and sports. Most importantly, it was the care and attention teachers, parents, and classmates invested in every student. These students were encouraged and nurtured to be intellectually curious and interested in the world around them. They were all expected to achieve.
I often thought it wasn't fair that only the wealthiest, smartest students, whose families had the $25,000+ to spend on tuition each year, had an opportunity like this. With 99% of my former students entering four-year colleges, I spent each graduation ceremony wondering who ensured this opportunity for the rest of California's children? Since our nation's prestigious colleges and universities fill up with students from private and well-performing public schools, what is left for all the other students in our state who don't get the same support and guidance?
The education crisis in California is frankly unfair, unacceptable, and exacerbated now by even larger and looming budget cuts. Fortunately, like many Americans, I have a lot of hope - hope for our education system because for the first time in many years I have faith in our leadership. Maybe part of the solution to our education crisis will be found in President Obama's call for all of us to get involved in community service. Maybe if we donate our time to students and schools who need our help and support, we can bridge the gap felt in so many of our schools. Maybe it is up to citizens to provide the infrastructure and attention students need to succeed. This education crisis is one of our biggest challenges, but it can also become our biggest opportunity to invest directly in California's future.