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View from Lodi, CA: Our Overwhelmed Public Schools
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March 05, 2004, 04:00 AM
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California can never have a sound educational system as long as our borders are open. No amount of school bond money can keep up with the numbers of children who arrive in California each year.

That is the bottom line. We can pretend that the root cause is insufficient funds, poor teaching or lousy infrastructure.

We can form blue ribbon panels like the Quality Education Commission to study California schools. But in the end, it comes back to simply too many kids with too many needs coming to California too fast.

Consider as already spent the $12.3 billion generated by Proposition 55. The $13.1 billion by Proposition 47 in 2002—less than two years ago! – is a distant memory.

In Los Angeles, Measure R—the third bond measure in seven years for the Los Angeles Unified School District—will provide $3.87 billion for the construction of 50 new schools.

The open borders crisis exacerbates the already horrendous condition of California schools. Hardly a correct decision regarding schools has been made in the last four decades.

On February 5th, PBS aired First to Worst, a documentary that chronicles the dramatic fall of California schools over the last generation from first in the nation to at or near the bottom.

In one of the film`s dramatic moments Jim Deasy, the superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu School District is asked what California parents would do if they could see the functional schools in Michigan, Iowa or Connecticut.

Without a pause, Deasy says, "They`d move."

In the 1960s, California schools were the envy of the nation. But according to the latest National Assessment of Education Progress, an annual evaluation of student achievement, California is currently tied for last among the 50 states in eighth-grade reading, and is 47th in fourth-grade reading.

Everything about our schools is in disrepair, according to First to Worst. Across the state, thousands of schools don`t have the necessary resources for full class days, sports, special needs students, guidance counselors or even textbooks.

In many cases, schools rely on parent fund-raising and donations to help provide the so-called extras. Naturally, students from lower income families suffer the most.

First to Worst provides a time-line of variables that shows how California schools have become so dysfunctional:

  • 1965—Immigration: In 1962, California`s population was 17 million with 8% non-white residents. But the Immigration Reform and Control Act opened the doors to huge waves of immigrants. The demographic change was profound. Today, more than 55% of students are Hispanic or Asian; 25% are English Language Learners. Between 1980 and 2000, the student population—fueled by immigration—grew by an average of 100,000 each year. California schools are severely overcrowded with numerous elementary and middle schools serving more than 1,000 students.

  • 1978—Proposition 13: Property tax rates were reduced by 57% and tax revenue available to schools dropped proportionately. Equally important, Prop 13 changed how public schools are managed. A local school system gave way to state managed education bogged down in a bureaucratic maze.

  • 1988-1994—Whole Language Reform: California adopted a new English Language Arts framework that embraced a method of teaching reading called "whole language". Children were "immersed" in literature but did not learn how to sound out words. Whole-language textbooks were adopted by the state, and districts had no choice but to comply with state regulations if they wanted funding. Whole language was a disaster and thousands of children never learned how to read effectively.

  • 1996—Class Size Reduction: In the mid-1990s, California elementary schools had the largest average class size in the nation—29 students. But when then Governor Pete Wilson passed legislation that reduced K-3 to 20 students or less, a host of unexpected problems cropped up: classroom and qualified teachers shortages were among the most serious. In his book, The Worm in the Apple, Peter Brimelow writes that class size reduction "requires an enormous in resources devoted to education. Right off the bat, the bill for teacher salaries alone would increase by 20%."

Analysts are always promising that improvements are just around the corner. With only a few billion more we`re told, California`s schools can recapture their prominence.

Sorry, that is not the view from this corner. We can`t keep up—period.

And Michael Kirst, professor of education, business administration and political science agrees.

Said Kirst:

"I think the big picture is that California grows so rapidly. If we were like Pennsylvania, for example, where the population was steady or declining, we wouldn`t be in this condition. The state of California grew six million people between 1980 and 1990. Several years our school enrollments went up by over 200,000 a year. We grew four million people between 1990 and 2000. So we`re always having 100,000 or more students to accommodate, and the rapid growth often takes place in areas that don`t have the financial wherewithal to build schools rapidly to meet them."

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.