California has a new requirement for its K–12 students: learning how to recognize fake news. Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park), who sponsored the bill requiring this instruction, believes it will help combat misinformation. With an obvious reference to Trump and his supporters, Berman stated, “I’ve seen the impact that misinformation has had in the real world—how it affects the way people vote, whether they accept the outcomes of elections, try to overthrow our democracy.” The bill requires “media literacy” be taught beginning in kindergarten and continuing through 12th grade. It was signed into law by Gavin Newsom last month.

But who will teach California’s teachers how to recognize fake news? One study found that about 75 percent of US adults overestimate their ability to identify fake news, and the more confident they are of their limited abilities, the more likely they are to share the misinformation with others. Another study found that a whopping 96 percent of adults were unable to identify fake news.

A big problem with this new requirement is that today’s news is as much about entertainment as information, particularly political entertainment. Combine this with the fact that people like to hear what they want to hear, and you can see how these classes could devolve into “CNN good; Fox News bad” in many California schools.

One San Francisco teacher framed the new requirement more broadly: “If we’re just teaching kids how to read, and not think critically about what they’re reading, we’re doing them a disservice.”  

Critical thinking is paramount. But how is it possible that the state is not already doing this? A “fake news” law is not needed for teachers to help students learn how to think on their own. But developing critical thinking is light years away in California schools, because California is not even teaching its kids how to read. Or do math. Or do science. And until California succeeds in teaching the basics, it has no business implementing new requirements like “fake news studies” or “ethnic studies.”

Roughly 75 percent of California students lack proficiency in math, reading, or science when assessed against federal education standards.

The proficiency bar is not particularly high. For example, in math, only 27 percent of California eighth grade students could determine that the number 1.1 is halfway between the numbers 0.8 and 1.4 on a number line, even though the number line included tick marks that help students measure the distance between numbers.

California’s educational deficiencies are nothing short of a disaster. The greatest public investment we can make is in educating those who will inherit the future, but we are failing miserably at this task, despite a school budget of $128 billion. California’s school budget is comparable to the combined full state budgets of Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Tennessee. The population of these states together is nearly 33 million, compared to California’s 39.2 million population.  

What future will three out of four kids have in California? Without proficiency in basic subjects, most will struggle mightily. How many could feasibly afford to purchase a future home, in a state with a current median home price of $843,000?  How many could even afford the average rent of $2,405 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, which requires nearly $100,000 in household income based on the industry standard of allocating no more than 30 percent of pre-tax income for rent?

California parents are responding to the state’s failure to educate by pulling their children out of the state’s educational system. Since 2019, the state school system has lost over 300,000 students. Of those students who remain, an alarming 30 percent are chronically absent, meaning that they miss at least 10 percent of school days.

The poor performance of California schools is particularly concerning among schools outside of high-income districts, the latter of which attract the best teachers and administrators. The median home price, averaged over the 20 highest-ranked school districts as rated by Niche, a popular school and neighborhood review firm, is around $2 million.

 It is important to note, however, that high-performing schools are not just those that are funded well. Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, which is one of the lowest-performing high schools in the state, has a per-pupil budget that is about twice as high as that of Palos Verdes High School, one of the top high schools in the state.  Spending more money is not the key to fixing California’s underperforming schools. The state’s school budget has increased more than 40 percent, adjusted for inflation, in the last 15 years, but test scores are about the same now as in 2008.

For decades, California schools have failed to teach our kids, particularly those in low-income districts where the poorest-performing teachers work, employees who are nearly impossible to fire for cause, given union protections. The fact that lawmakers create new pet requirements including “fake news” classes is an affront to the millions of California families whose children attend deficient public schools, children who will become adults without the skills to afford to live in the state, much less succeed in any career requiring mastery of the basics that our schools should be teaching.

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