Blame California’s Elected Leaders, Not Its Teachers, For What Ails The State’s Public Schools

Thursday, August 17, 2017
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A few days from now, 6.2 million children will return to public schools in California. Three million of them can’t read or write at grade level (the number is especially tragic among male African American kids).

In reading, California fourth-graders rank among the lowest: forty-eighth in the nation. This isn’t a recent development: twenty-five years ago, we ranked forty-ninth.

Think about that.

As Californians, we’re in the most competitive economy in the history of mankind. Low-skill jobs pay poverty wages. Yet 3 million kids can’t read and write at grade level.

This isn’t just a policy failure. It’s a moral stain on the State of California. That’s why I’ve dedicated the last fifteen years of my life to public education and have helped open public charter schools and turned around district schools in some of California’s poorest communities.

For more than a generation, our elected officials have failed California’s kids. While politicians try to blame Washington, the truth is that Sacramento is the real obstacle to success. Almost all of the funding and rules that govern our public schools come from the state’s capital.

Politicians have done little to address our unprecedented teacher shortage. They allowed the state teacher pension to balloon to a $100 billion unfunded liability and let the state fall from seventh in per pupil funding down to forty-first.  They suffocate innovation and local control with a 2,500-page Education Code.

As the world has changed, our schools remain stuck in the past. Our student population has grown far more diverse, and our economy is more knowledge-based than ever, but too many schools operate largely as they did forty years ago. They’re preparing students for the twentieth century, leaving them unprepared to meet the demands of the twenty-first. 

We hear a lot of people blame educators for the conditions of our schools, but that’s wrong. The fault lies with our elected officials, and it’s time we get some new ones. It should begin with California’s top education official: the state superintendent of public instruction. 

There are no silver bullets. We need a ten-year plan to improve our public schools using four pillars for proven success:

Great teachers and principals. To have the best public schools in the country, we need the best educators. That starts by modernizing teacher and principal training in our universities. When teachers get into their classrooms, they need mentors and ambitious principals so they can continue to grow. Although I believe the issue gets overblown by the media, we need to change the state’s inflexible work laws around areas like seniority-based layoffs and tenure to ensure accountability and flexibility for local schools. Finally let’s be clear: we must pay our teachers more. If we truly respect the teaching profession, it’s time to show it with competitive wages.

Twenty-first-century schools. I believe in local control, not top-down bureaucracy. With more flexibility and support, schools can be places all kids are excited to attend and that prepare them for the twenty-first century.

Our schools should begin with pre-kindergarten, teach foreign languages in elementary school, integrate arts, and offer courses, such as computer science, that prepare students to be successful in the new economy. To prepare students, we must teach problem solving, not rote memorization. We should use new technology to help educators do even more and to help bring curriculum to life. Learning must extend beyond the walls of a classroom; we should partner with businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations to give students hands-on learning experiences.

All children. Our students are incredibly diverse, and the demands of the twenty-first-century economy--and morality--require that we educate all of them well. Whether you’re in special education or an English learner-- regardless of who you are and how you learn--our public schools should serve you. We have to do a lot more to ensure our children living in poverty have access to quality schools. For too long we have not effectively educated our most vulnerable students.

The California Department of Education (CDE) must act as a catalyst of innovation, then lead collaborations that spread great ideas and practices across schools in California. Wherever great things are happening– whether in district schools or charter schools–we must learn from them. The state must intervene when schools are chronically failing our kids. We can’t sit by while year after year entire communities are left behind.

Fair funding. Money alone won’t solve our problems; we must not  throw good money after bad. But the fact is that California schools rank forty-first in per-pupil funding, and we must change that. First we need more budget transparency. Every taxpayer has a right to see how their tax dollars are spent, and we must cut the state bureaucracy to get more funds into local classrooms. We must regain public trust and then ask for the investments we need to fund our schools.

California once had the best schools in the country. We can again. No more settling for mediocrity or failure; no more politics as usual. Let’s work together to demand better and finally give California’s students the education they deserve.


California is one of only thirteen states that elect a superintendent of public instruction to oversee its public schools. Unlike many other states, there’s no requirement of an advanced degree or an active teaching certificate. The job’s nonpartisan but only nominally so (Delaine Eastin, who held the post from 1995 to 2003, is currently a Democratic candidate for governor). What California has created is a bureaucratic romper room. There’s no longer a gubernatorial education secretary, but there’s still a nonelected State Board of Education, plus numerous nonelected commissions mucking around in school-related matters–and that’s not counting 120 state legislators who consider themselves education savants.


The architect of California public education was John Swett, the Golden State’s school superintendent in the midst of the American Civil War. Just thirty-three at the time of his election, Swett convinced lawmakers to create a state board of education, organize schools into grades, and provide for teacher certification. He also secured the abolition of rate bills charging parents for tuition, lengthened the school year, and secured pay increases for teachers. The legendary Swett, however, would have issues with this generation of school reformers: “The child should be taught to consider his instructor . . . superior to the parent in point of authority,” Swett once remarked. “The vulgar impression that parents have a legal right to dictate to teachers is entirely erroneous. . . . Parents have no remedy as against the teacher.” And you wonder why school choice has struggled in California.