When schools across California closed in mid-March of last year, parents saw the decision for what it was: a sensible precaution in the face of a novel threat. At the time, they couldn’t have imagined it would be a year or more before their children would see the inside of a classroom again. As students in other states returned to normal learning, California’s schools remained shuttered. And parents began to see public education in California for what it is: a corrupt system that puts special interests before kids.
On June 29, 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill passed by the state Legislature that contained a common-sense requirement: school districts “shall offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible.” Yet less than three weeks later, Newsom commanded just the opposite, issuing an executive order that kept nearly every school closed for the fall. Even at this relatively early date, the order made California a national outlier, flying in the face of recommendations by public health and child welfare organizations ranging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
As time went on, some districts became theoretically eligible to open in some form. But in most cases they failed to do so, as both state policy and district-level decisions were controlled by the same irresistible force: the political power of teachers’ unions. This was particularly true of larger districts, which is why to this day California is second to last in the nation in getting students back in the classroom. Adding insult to injury, the Los Angeles and San Francisco unified school districts recently enacted sham reopenings in order to claim millions in extra funding: SFUSD let two out of fifteen high schools offer in-person “supervision” once a week, while LAUSD set up a Kafkaesque “Zoom in a Room” experience that only 7 percent of students showed up for.
It is impossible to fully understand the harm these adult decisions have inflicted on California kids. But we already have some sense of its many dimensions, from spikes in mental health emergency room visits in the present to reduced earning potential that will linger decades into the future. Perhaps most jarringly, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that elementary students across America will have lost a staggering 5.5 million years of life expectancy because of learning loss from school closures in just the spring of 2020.
While the breadth and severity of these harms are unprecedented, those stemming from inadequate learning were already being felt by millions of California kids before the coronavirus arrived on our shores. Before the pandemic, California ranked forty-sixth, forty-eighth, forty-seventh, and forty-seventh nationally in fourth-grade and eighth-grade math and reading; 49 percent of our students could not read on grade level; and over 60 percent were not on grade level for math. Students in underserved communities fared even worse, ranking second to last in the country. Despite these dismal outcomes, Newsom wrote newly elected President Joe Biden a letter in January that touted California education policy as a model for his administration.
With the school year now over and the pandemic waning, Newsom has started talking about “reimagining public education.” By this he means spending a lot more money on it. Backed by a projected $76 billion state budget “surplus” (the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst disputes this number), Newsom proposed billions in additional funding while offering nothing in the way of meaningful reform—no plan to fix a broken system that keeps kids trapped in failing schools. Far from a journey of imagination, this is a page from a well-worn playbook: throw more money at the education establishment while bringing schools under greater political and bureaucratic control from Sacramento. The result over the last decade is $60 billion in added yearly spending with no demonstrable impact on student achievement.
To truly reimagine public education, we don’t need to spend more money. We need to change how money gets spent, so as to maximize access to high-quality education options for all California students. That includes:
Empowering Parents. Across the country, the COVID-19 era has catalyzed a revolution in school choice. Other states, for instance, are advancing legislation to create education savings accounts where parents can direct the state funding allocated to their child wherever they choose. But in California, we are seeing just the opposite: an attempt to eliminate those forms of choice now available.
As traditional public schools remained closed last year, many parents quickly sought out other options. State politicians responded just as quickly by trying to close off those options. The Legislature passed and Newsom signed an urgency measure specifically designed to keep kids enrolled in their closed neighborhood schools. Incredibly, the bill flatly denied funding to growing schools—the ones that were serving students effectively during the pandemic.
The bill’s main target was charter schools. Charters are publicly funded schools open to all free of cost. What makes them different from other public schools is that they aren’t assigned students from the surrounding neighborhood by default; instead, they have to attract families to opt in by offering a desirable product. In addition, their operations are less constrained by the state Education Code, and their employees are not automatically unionized—meaning the California Teachers Association and other large unions don’t get a cut of every teacher’s paycheck. The purpose of the bill Newsom signed was thus to protect the business model of the CTA—which happens to be his biggest campaign contributor—at the expense of families struggling to keep their kids learning during the school shutdown.
To make matters worse, another recently introduced bill, AB 1316, would further restrict access to non-classroom-based charter schools and potentially force hundreds of them to permanently close down. It is no secret that the CTA and its enablers at the state capitol will settle for nothing less than the extinction of charters in California. That these schools have proven to be the best option for many underprivileged kids simply doesn’t matter; that they have driven the types of innovation that, for example, enabled the best forms of distance learning is also irrelevant.
In other states, large underperforming districts have been transformed by embracing the principles of chartering. California could improve the life prospects of countless young people by following this example: end the war on charters and adopt policies that make it easier to start and expand high-performing charters. For instance, instead of giving the job of approving a new charter school to local districts—which have their own schools to worry about and are often reluctant to create a competitor—this power could be placed in the hands of an independent authority tasked solely with assessing the school’s prospects to advance student achievement. More broadly, school districts themselves could be given the flexibility to operate more like charters by repealing many parts of the Education Code that successful charters have proven are unnecessary.
In California, it must be said, school choice is already fully available to a portion of the population: wealthy families who can pay private tuition or move to a neighborhood with quality public schools. The prevailing education agenda at our state capitol seeks to entrench this inequity. A school choice agenda, by contrast, seeks to overcome it by putting every California parent in the driver’s seat, regardless of where they live or how much money they make.
Valuing Teachers. When it comes to successful learning, teachers are everything. By some measures, having a great teacher has an impact two to three times greater than any other factor. Yet California education policy is not designed to promote the success of our teachers in the classroom.
Tenure policy is a glaring example. In forty-two states, this protected employment status is earned after a three- to five-year period where new teachers can develop their skills and administrators can evaluate their prospects for long-term success. In California, this “probationary” period is only two years. In practice, that means school districts face an all-or-nothing choice after about eighteen months: fire the teacher or grant what is effectively lifetime employment. Often, out of risk aversion, young teachers are simply let go, cutting off what could be a promising career in the classroom.
Other union-supported policies produce the same result. The practice known as “last in, first out” (LIFO) means that layoffs always result in the newest teachers losing their jobs regardless of performance or long-term potential. At the same time, such inexperienced teachers tend to get clustered at schools in poorer communities thanks to “seniority bumping” policies that give their more seasoned colleagues first choice of where to teach. They often choose schools in more well-off neighborhoods and take their higher salaries with them, with the perverse consequence that schools in a district’s most affluent areas often receive the most funding.
To the extent that teaching experience is an asset—which it surely can be—this also means the quality of instruction can vary greatly between schools just a few miles apart. The rich getter richer and the poor get poorer, even as the state claims to have an education funding formula that directs greater resources to underserved schools. At the same time, any incentives to teach at such schools, such as higher pay, are fiercely opposed by the education establishment. Unions similarly make sure teachers aren’t rewarded for putting in extra effort with students and don’t face consequences for inadequate job performance. Districts thus have little incentive to help teachers improve their practice.
It is thus conscious policy choices, driven by the political influence of interest groups, that feed our state’s persistent and growing achievement gaps. This means we can immediately start to close those gaps with better policy choices driven by a concern for student success. Aside from reforming perverse policies like tenure, LIFO, and seniority bumping, we should invest in high-quality professional development where teachers continually review their practice, assess its effectiveness, and develop the knowledge and skills to lead students to greater success.
Breaking Up School Districts. California’s most populous city, Los Angeles, is home to the second-largest school district in America. LAUSD educates over six hundred thousand students, and generally does so poorly: its academic outcomes are among the worst in the state. The district is also on the brink of insolvency because of irrational commitments to costly post-retirement health care, among other non-student-centered spending decisions. It is impossible to achieve education success statewide without addressing LAUSD’s continuing failure.
The best way to do so may be to break up the district. This could mean dividing it into smaller districts that are more responsive to their respective communities—or, more boldly, turning every LAUSD school into a charter school. This is what New Orleans did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and it’s been a tremendous success. Perhaps a silver lining of COVID-19 will be to offer a similar fresh start: since LAUSD has simply refused to open its schools, they can be turned over to independent operators with a track record of propelling student achievement.
Indeed, the same goes for our state as a whole. As an era of decline and failure has culminated in a year of untold trauma, this is the time to take Newsom at his word and truly reimagine education in California.
Kevin Kiley represents California’s 6th Assembly District, spanning Sacramento, Placer, and El Dorado counties. He currently serves as vice-chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Education.