The promise of public education is to provide all children with the opportunity to fulfill their potential. That promise is the foundation of the American dream. That promise means that our public schools provide a real shot at a better life, no matter where a student lives or who her or his parents are.
California prides itself as a global center of innovation, creativity, opportunity, and equality. We are the wealthiest state in the nation. We should have among the very best public schools in the country. But the truth is, for too long, our schools have been stuck near the bottom.
In California, 6.2 million students attend our public schools; but, about 3 million of them cannot read or write at grade level. The situation is especially bleak for our most vulnerable students. Just fifteen percent of low-income African American students in California’s public schools can do math at grade-level, and only 17% of Hispanic Californians have a college degree, compared with 51% of white Californians— the largest attainment gap in the country. Given the demands of the 21st century, what does that mean for their future? What chance do they have of truly pursuing the American Dream?
For decades, California’s leaders have failed to do what it takes to dramatically improve our public schools – even as they have taken bold steps on issues like climate change and health care. It is time for California to prioritize public education and commit to renewing its promise for students across California.
This kind of change is possible, but it will only happen if we work together with urgency to make common-sense reforms and tackle difficult challenges.
To make California’s schools among the very best, we need a 10-year plan – with collaboration and cooperation from the governor, legislators, state superintendent, educators, parents, students, labor, business, and community leaders. We have put together the starting point for such a plan here. But we aren’t starting from scratch. Our state has made progress on some areas in our public schools, significant research has been done on everything from brain development to promising classroom practices, and there are good things happening in schools up-and-down our state every day.
This plan seeks to build on that knowledge to present a vision for better public schools for all kids. It is also informed by my fifteen years in public education, working with some of the poorest communities in Los Angeles to build new public schools and to turn around under performing ones. Read more about that here.
It’s not an exhaustive list of ideas and will need to be further developed with collaboration, insight and guidance from educators, experts and community leaders; and, with support from political leaders and the public.
The plan is organized around four key areas that we believe our public education system needs to prioritize over the next decade:
Investing in our teachers and principals
Schools for the 21st century
A public education system that works for all kids
Classrooms that are fully funded
Invest in our teachers and principals
There is nothing more important to a school’s success than our teachers and principals. If we want to have the best public schools in the country, we need to invest in them. Teachers inspire and engage our children, and help cultivate a love of learning. Principals support our teachers, engage our parents and communities, and shape school culture.
Unfortunately, California has not prioritized its educators and, as a result, we have a massive teacher shortage, and we do not have enough principals who have been developed to be strong instructional leaders. Three-quarters of all school districts in California report having difficulty filling open positions with qualified educators, and the problem is particularly bad in key subjects like math, science, and special education, and in our highest poverty schools.
We need to attract more people to the teaching profession and retain the best of them by increasing incentives and compensation, and substantially improving the supports we provide to teachers and those aspiring to be teachers. We need to do the same for principals. We need to do more to attract and retain educators serving students with the greatest need. For too long, our state has enabled a system in which poor students have less experienced teachers and principals, and more staff turnover.
With the right policies, we can elevate the teaching profession, and make sure we have great educators in all our public schools.
Better Pay for Our Educators
Teaching is a difficult and important profession and it needs to be compensated as such. While there are other steps we can take to make the profession more attractive, we must increase teacher compensation. In many places in our state, two married teachers can’t afford to buy a house in or near the community in which they teach. This needs to change. In many countries with high performing education systems, educators are better compensated, as compared to other professions. This isn’t a coincidence.
In California, we need to put in place a clear path over the next decade to increase overall compensation for our educators. In Unified School Districts in California, beginning teacher salaries range from about $41,000 to $49,000 per year. By comparison, California prison guards receive a starting salary of about $52,000 to $57,000, with a paid training period, and without needing a post-secondary degree. These are political choices we have made that have deprioritized education and our teachers. We can make better choices. This will not be easy as it will require more funding and real changes, but it is essential if we want to elevate the teaching profession.
Free College for Teachers
While it will take time to increase teacher compensation significantly across the board, one thing that we can do more immediately is make college and credentialing free to all people who commit to teach for at least five years. California should offer no-interest loans to college students who commit to teach for five years. Once a teacher finishes her or his fifth year of teaching, the loans would be forgiven. The teacher shortage in our state makes this an urgent priority. If we are unable to fund the full program immediately, we should start with teachers that commit to teach in high-needs communities and in hard-to-staff subject areas, like special education.
Equity in School Staffing
In addition to increased funding overall for educators, our state should support school districts in their efforts to provide additional compensation to teachers, counselors, and principals who work in high-needs communities and fill our most difficult-to-staff positions.
One of the biggest equity issues in California’s public schools is the fact that our schools serving greater proportions of low-income children tend to have a harder time filling open positions, have higher staff turnover, and have less experienced staffs overall than schools in higher-income neighborhoods. We will not make meaningful progress on closing the achievement gap if our public school system continues to put our students with greatest need in schools with less experienced educators and higher staff turnover. This is one of the greatest inequities in our public schools, and it has consistently gone unaddressed.
We must increase both compensation and support for our educators working in high-needs schools, to ensure the staffs in these schools are at least as experienced, effective, and consistent as the staffs in schools serving more affluent communities.
Stronger Teacher Training
We can help teachers be even better prepared when they begin their careers if we make improvements to our university teacher training programs.
Much of the coursework that is currently offered in the credentialing year for aspiring teachers should be provided in undergraduate programs so that the credentialing year can serve as a residency, where the teacher-candidate is spending the vast majority of her or his time working in the field, learning from highly effective teachers. Residency programs have been piloted in California and in other states and it is time to make a residency program the norm for the majority of the people coming into the teaching profession. A quality residency program for new teachers can improve the quality of the preparation that they receive before taking on their own classrooms.
You can read more about the teacher residency model in a report by the Learning Policy Institute.
Additionally, as our state standards for students, and student demographics have changed, we need to see changes and improvements in many of our university teacher training programs. For instance, we want our students to be engaged in more project-based and experiential learning, so our teachers must be adequately prepared to support students through those experiences. And as the number of English Learners and students living in or near poverty has grown, we need to make sure teachers have the training they need to meet the particular needs of these student populations, including adequate preparation for the social-emotional needs of students.
Finally, we can streamline the process by which people transfer their teaching credentials from other states to California, or make career-changes from other fields into the teaching profession.
A Coach or Mentor for New Teachers
A quality university preparation program cannot be the end of a teachers’ formal development or support. We need to continue to revamp the current Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) Program and create incentives and supports to encourage school districts to provide new teachers with a quality mentor, as more research continues to demonstrate the significant impact of coaching. The state should work with districts to support their efforts to put in place high quality mentoring and coaching programs for new teachers.
In addition to supporting new teachers, we should support school districts in prioritizing coaching programs that help teachers continue to grow and learn throughout their career. This can be particularly helpful to teachers who are struggling or when school districts introduce new instructional materials or teaching strategies.
Principals that are Instructional Leaders
Principals are a critical piece of our public education system. If you look at high performing schools throughout our state, one consistency is a strong principal. Principals should be responsible for hiring their teams, creating a clear vision for their schools, serving as instructional leaders, bringing resources to campus, building relationships with teachers, students, parents and community, allocating financial resources most efficiently, and participating in teacher evaluations, among other duties. It is an incredibly challenging and rewarding job. Unfortunately, our state and our school districts often overlook our administrators. This needs to change.
First, principals need to be given the flexibility to address the varying needs of their schools; this should be their focus, rather than tending to compliance and bureaucracy. School districts also need to further invest in developing our principals’ capacity to be strong instructional leaders, as supporting the practice of their teachers should be a top priority. Research has shown that one of the top reasons teachers leave the profession is a lack of sufficient support from their principal. This is especially problematic today in the face of our state’s teacher shortage crisis. A strong instructional leader with the time to support teachers can help curb this trend. We can build principal capacity by encouraging districts to pair their new school leaders with more experienced school leaders, and by improving administrative preparation programs in our universities. The state can also help school districts share best practices around developing a strong pipeline of leadership talent through the development of promising lead teachers and assistant principals.
Cultures of Continual Learning
Our schools should provide- and our state should support- working conditions that excite, motivate, and retain educators and other employees. One important aspect of this is being an organization that is always growing and learning. This requires more time for adult professional development, leveraging the most effective educators to train their peers, having a strong system for evaluations and data gathering at all levels, and deliberately creating opportunities for professional and career growth. This will look different in different districts based on size, location, and demographics. But the state should support local efforts to continuously support the growth of employees that are aligned around a shared vision for student success.
We need to help schools and school districts rethink staffing, resource allocation, and time, so they can maximize professional learning for school employees. This can aid schools in their effort to better leverage the expertise of site-based educators; too often professional development for educators is designed, led, and executed by those who have not practiced in a great deal of time, or at all. Opportunities for learning and growth should also extend to non-instructional staff, such as office managers, parent coordinators, district staff, and others.
Locally-designed, meaningful evaluations play an important role in continual learning, too. The state should support district and school efforts to build evaluations that articulate thoughtful professional goals, a plan and resources for meeting them, and a process for reviewing both formative and summative progress towards meeting those goals.
Finally, our schools should provide career advancement options for educators. Growth and leadership opportunities for school staff can increase retention and further cultivate a shared ownership over the vision and work of the school.
21st Century Work Rules
Our schools face a few work rules that don’t align well with the realities of a 21st century school system, and which can cause difficulties for educators and students alike. These rules are worth reexamining—not to eliminate entirely, but to rework for a modern school system. Among these are rules governing tenure, teacher layoffs, and dismissals.
With regards to tenure, our schools currently must decide to grant tenure or dismiss a teacher after less than two years of service. This is simply not enough time for a teacher to receive the support necessary to demonstrate her or his full potential, or for a principal and school district to decide if a teacher should receive tenure. We need to give our teachers and schools more time before making such consequential decisions. Neither the teacher nor the student is served by having to make such a high-stakes decision after such a short period of time. Again, our most vulnerable students are most impacted by the errors that are inevitably made from time-to-time under such difficult circumstances. Tenure at our colleges and universities allows for a lengthier period during which this milestone can be earned and it is a rigorous process. A recent bill by Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber was introduced to provide additional time for teachers to earn tenure. This bill (AB 1220) originally proposed extending the pre-tenure probationary period to three years for all new teachers, and giving school districts the flexibility to extend that period to four or five years, to provide that teacher with additional support and time before having to make the high-stakes decision of tenure or dismissal. Commonsense improvements such as these will better serve our students and, over time, will help uplift the teaching profession.
Currently, school boards must base teacher layoffs solely on seniority rather than on classroom effectiveness or other factors. While seniority should remain a significant factor, keeping it as the sole factor for layoffs can be problematic, especially for our children-of-color, and those living in poverty, who attend schools with a disproportionate share of more junior teachers. We should aim to fund our schools such that layoffs are a rarity, but if layoffs do occur, school districts should be given the flexibility to address them in a much more equitable way where seniority is one factor used in determining layoffs, but not the only factor.
Finally, we must reform our state’s teacher dismissal process, under which it is uniquely difficult for local school districts to dismiss teachers for consistently poor performance or misconduct. The current laws around dismissal also have a disproportionate impact on our highest-need students. Reasonable protections against arbitrary dismissals- such as the protections afforded other public employees- are important. But the current process is extremely rigid, very expensive, and generally ineffective.
21st Century Schools
California’s public schools need to be organized for the 21st century, but many of our schools were designed for the economy of yesterday. Despite all the changes in our economy and world, our schools have not kept pace. Today’s economy demands innovation and flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving. Those are the traits we need in a 21st century public school.
That begins with universal pre-kindergarten— because it’s simply too late for children to start school at 5 years old. It means offering a robust and relevant curriculum that prepares students for success— whether in college or in skilled professions that do not require a degree. It also means thinking creatively about how schools use time; and, how learning experiences can extend beyond the four walls of a classroom. State leaders must work with local superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents to help California’s public schools broaden and improve their academic programs, and push to give local schools the operational flexibility they need to more effectively develop students’ skills and engage their passions.
California is the innovation capital of the world. There is no excuse for our schools to lag behind. Let’s eliminate barriers that stand in the way of educators; spur the creativity necessary to bring our schools into the 21st century; and, help grow and replicate the best practices that emerge.
A 21st century school system is one that begins in pre-kindergarten, as we know how important learning in a child’s early years can be. Free access to quality pre-k is especially important for our high-needs children given that we see large achievement gaps between higher poverty and higher income groups of students at the very start of kindergarten. Universal access to pre-k will help address this, while also laying critical foundations for social-emotional, and academic growth in later years. Universal pre-k has also proven to be a wise economic investment; when considered against spending on delinquency, dependence on public assistance, and revenue generated on employment and earnings, some studies have found as much as $10.15 benefit for every $1 invested in pre-k programs. This needs to be an immediate, top priority for our state.
The state superintendent and California Department of Education also play a significant role in early childcare and early childhood education opportunities. Serving our very youngest children- from 0-3 years- merits a great deal of attention and work, given all the research that continues to unfold underlining the significant impact these early opportunities can have over the entire lifetime of an individual.
More Flexibility and Local Control
Our state needs to give our schools greater flexibility that will allow them to be more creative and innovative. When our educators are free to be more entrepreneurial in their classrooms and schools, our students thrive. Unfortunately, over the last several decades, the California Education Code- the rules that govern our public schools- has continued to grow, and is overly prescriptive, dictating far too much to educators and school districts, and acting as a barrier to innovative, diverse schools that meet the needs of all children. The introduction of the new funding formula- the Local Control Funding Formula- provided much more spending flexibility to local school districts, and this was a critical foundation upon which we can build. This will require working with the legislature, county and district superintendents, the governor, and others to change current laws and get much more flexibility from the Education Code for our schools. This effort will likely take significant time so we plan to work with the state board of education in the short-term to get waivers from the Education Code while we work on longer-term policy change.
Learning for the 21st Century
Learning for the 21st century includes a rigorous core curriculum, as well as enrichment opportunities that go well beyond that.
When it comes to math and English standards, we have seen progress with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which favor analytic problem-solving skills over rote memorization, and which- when properly implemented- permit a greater deal of educator creativity and flexibility. Our state is also making progress on implementing the Next Generation Science Standards and on developing new standards for social sciences. These are all positive steps forward. Our state needs to continue to do more, however, to make sure schools have the support they need to implement these standards effectively, and that parents and the public are well-informed about these standards, and how they, too, can help maximize their impact.
21st century learning, however, goes well beyond state standards. There is much we can do in our schools to better prepare our students to be successful and the state should support school districts in these efforts.
More project-based, hands-on, and collaborative learning experiences, so students know how to apply their learning to real-world problems, and work productively with others
Foreign language instruction at an early age, when research tells us students are best equipped to master it
Extended learning time, especially for those students that require it to catch up
Instructional practices that develop critical thinking, rather than rote memorization, so students can be successful in our knowledge-based economy
Courses that are forward thinking, such as engineering and computer science, so students are ready for the economy of tomorrow
Nurturing student creativity through access to art and music— not just for students in affluent communities, but for all students
Preparing students for good citizenship by incorporating civics courses early and consistently into the curriculum
Social-emotional learning and other important life skills that help our students be productive and successful well beyond just the classroom
These are just some of the many ways our schools can provide a 21st century education. Sometimes our schools can make these types of opportunities available to students through local, public-private partnerships with nonprofits, businesses, and other organizations in their communities. Internships, apprenticeships, and other hands-on experiences are invaluable to preparing students for the 21st century economy, and allowing them to put into practice the skills they are seeking to develop at school every day. Our state should be a leader in helping school districts develop public-private partnerships, and helping to create other such opportunities to unlock the full potential of schools’ programs.
Connecting K-12 to College and Career
Just as a 21st century school system begins in pre-kindergarten, it is also one that extends beyond high school. It is one that must prepare students to be successful in their pursuit of college and/or career.
Our state needs to do more to work with school districts to help bring greater Career Technical Education (CTE) opportunities to students, through school programs like Regional Occupational Centers, as well as through partnerships with employers. Additionally, the state superintendent can convene educators, industry leaders, and economists to map out anticipated needs in the forthcoming job market, and plan backwards to design educational programs that prepare students to be excellent candidates for those and other opportunities. Ultimately, we need to improve the quality and reach of our CTE programs and make sure they are relevant for the 21st century economy.
With regards to students that pursue higher degrees, we can create partnerships between leaders in colleges and universities and our elementary and secondary educators to share insights, and to develop stronger alignment between the skills developed in pre-K-12 and those needed to be successful in college. The state superintendent holds a seat on the University of California Regents and the Board of Trustees for the California State University, and is especially well-poised to lead this kind of articulation.
Of course, we must also find ways to make college more affordable and accessible for students, and break down the financial barriers that exist for students- especially from low-income households- when it comes to pursuing higher degrees.
Unlock the Power of Technology
Technology can have an enormous impact on teaching and learning. Technology can help personalize learning, extend learning time, and help bring curriculum to life. Our state should support efforts to maximize the potential of technology in our classrooms and schools.
Well-utilized technology has the capacity to improve the way we individualize and personalize learning for students. One of the greatest challenges facing our educators is the great diversity of need that exists within a single classroom, with some students beginning each year several grade-levels behind, some several levels ahead, and everything in-between. Technology can help our schools address these challenges. Already today, some schools have begun to leverage technology to diagnose performance levels in real-time, and provide instantaneous feedback and support that is unique to each child. This needs to happen in more classrooms and schools throughout our state. Technology can also improve the opportunities teachers have to learn and grow in their practice.
Technology can also extend learning time— by connecting students to one another and their curriculum when they are away from school, and also by making self-directed practice available to students above-and-beyond the traditional supports they receive from their teachers.
The 21st century requires us to be critical consumers and producers of knowledge and ideas using a variety of platforms, and technology can help our schools reflect this reality. Students can now produce a news segment from a cell phone, collaborate with peers from another state, read archival texts from around the globe, and much more. We need to support more of this kind of learning in our public schools.
To unlock the power of technology, of course, all schools need broadband access and every classroom should have Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, today this isn’t the case, particularly in certain rural parts of our state. This is an issue of equity our state must help address.
To maximize the potential of technology, we’ll need to ensure that we roll-out new technologies in a thoughtful way, pairing it with the right training, and supports. Educators need to identify the software that best meets their students’ needs, and then acquire new skills for using them; administrators need to develop guidelines for cyber safety and data management; parents need to be included and engaged; and students need to adapt to new resources and new tools for learning. The state needs to support efforts like these. Home to Silicon Valley, we need to identify the best tools available to support our schools and children, and then share these innovative practices with educators across California.
21st Century School Facilities
Our students deserve to learn in inspiring environments, and the needs of the 21st century classroom and school will often require rethinking the physical space in which learning takes place. Too many of our students attend dilapidated schools, and ones that were built for a different era.
In 2016, the voters approved $9 billion in school bonds to help address this problem, and our priority now should be getting those dollars into the hands of districts of schools in a timely, efficient, and equitable manner. There are currently several state agencies that districts must interact with to receive the funding, as well as a host of rules. The state should consider ways to streamline this process, and ensure that it is flexible enough to maximize the use of these funds.
Additionally, the current policies governing bond fund distribution to local districts also can sometimes favor larger and wealthier districts by issuing funds on a first-come, first-served basis; smaller districts don’t have the resources or expertise to apply for these funds as quickly, and miss out. The state should reexamine policies like these to ensure an equitable distribution of funds.
Finally, the state should be sharing best practices about school design and construction that help districts update facilities in a way that aligns with student learning in the 21st century, and effectively utilizes taxpayer dollars.
Keeping Our Kids Safe
Keeping kids safe must always be the first priority of our schools. We must do whatever we can to keep our schools safe. There are many facets to this effort– from investing in mental health service, to crisis-responses training, to having secure facilities, and much more. Additionally, schools cannot do this work in isolation. They must work in partnership with community groups and other agencies, and be supported by commonsense policies- such as those on gun control- at the state and federal levels.
Below are some steps our state and schools can take to help keep our kids safe:
Improve mental health services available to students. This starts with improving the counselor-to-student ratio in our public schools; California currently ranks last in the nation when it comes to the number of counselors per student, and this needs to change.
Better integrate our public schools with other health and human services available to students from nonprofits, government agencies, and other organizations.
Ensure teachers and staff are trained in identifying possible concerns, and addressing them. Through teacher preparation programs and professional development, we need to prepare teachers and other school staff to identify issues, and then to address them before they escalate.
Target school bond dollars to improve the security of school facilities. Voters have approved funds for school facilities, and the state should prioritize projects that enhance the safety of school campuses.
Collaborate with local law enforcement and other agencies, to ensure productive communication that can help prevent threats to school safety, as well as effectively respond to a crisis.
Finally, the state can support schools in this area by studying effective practices across the state, to determine which strategies are having the most success, and sharing those practices.
A Public Education System that Works for All Kids
California’s student population is the most diverse in the country, and this can be an incredible asset for our state’s future. To meet that potential, however, we must ensure that public schools are equipped to address the challenges that come with students’ diverse needs. For too long, California’s public schools have fallen short. Large groups of students have been underserved for decades: Latinos, African Americans, as well as English Learners, African-American males, students with special needs, LGBTQ students, children in foster care, and others.
While the strategies discussed throughout this plan will help improve educational opportunities for all students, in order to make our public schools more equitable, we need sufficient and differentiated resources, policies, and practices for those with the greatest needs.
In addition to more support, the state must also hold schools accountable for truly serving all students. We cannot allow groups of students to be consistently underserved by our public schools.
A Comprehensive Equity Audit of our Public Schools
If schools and school districts are going differentiate their resources and supports to ensure we have equity in our public schools, they need to have a good understanding of how resources and supports are currently allocated. A school equity audit would help identify changes that would make resource allocation more equitable.
In an equity audit, districts would gather data that impacts the critical resources and supports that are available to students: financial resource allocations; educator experience levels and rates of turnover; access to a college preparatory curriculum; access to art, music, civics, and other enrichment experiences; and, learning time, among other key school-based opportunities. This data should then be analyzed across and race and class, so that we have a clear picture at the school, district, and state level of the inequities that exist in our system, as a critical starting point for addressing them. Districts and schools, with the help of the state, can then begin implementing the necessary changes (such as those discussed in this plan and elsewhere), to ensure that our system is actually meeting the needs of all students.
Equitable School Funding
Some students- such as those learning English, living in poverty, and/or in the foster care system- typically require additional dollars to support, due to the significant challenges they face. Allocating the necessary resources for schools to address these challenges and help students successfully overcome them is critical, and it is why the Local Control Funding Formula, launched by Governor Brown, is one of the most important policies passed in education in California in the last decade. This formula provides additional funding to schools based upon the number and proportion of high-needs students they serve. It also gives school districts much more flexibility in their funding decisions. It is important that we preserve and, when appropriate, expand upon the additional funding and financial flexibility that LCFF created, and resist forces that would once again smother our schools with categorical funding requirements, as was the case prior to LCFF.
The state superintendent and CDE can play an important role in the successful implementation of LCFF. We must:
Ensure that schools are using their LCFF dollars appropriately, and that the funds are actually being used to support students that generate supplemental and concentration grant dollars. School districts should report their budgets and spending in a user-friendly format that makes clear where the additional LCFF funding they received went, and how that spending impacted students.
Help share LCFF best practices across counties and districts efficiently. As school districts implement LCFF, the state superintendent and the Department of Education can play a critical role in monitoring the different ways school districts use the additional funding, and in promoting a statewide dialogue that allows districts to learn from each other as quickly as possible.
Make quality, disaggregated data related to LCFF available to all schools. For example, schools and communities should be able to see clearly the performance of targeted groups of students that are participating in programs that are primarily supported with the additional dollars LCFF generates for high-needs students. Having such data will enable identification of programs that work well, programs that do not.
Additional Support for Students in Special Education
Our students with special needs are too often underserved by our public education system. There are many things that we can do to improve the educational opportunities available to students who qualify for special services—and many of these efforts actually improve the education system for all children.
California should take the lead on pushing the federal government to fund special education mandates. For too long the federal government has dramatically underfunded special education, and all options should be explored when it comes to getting them to pay their fair share (including the possibility of working with other states to file a lawsuit against the federal government to compel their payment).
As we push for more overall funding for our public schools, we need to make sure we are adequately funding special education, especially for students with moderate/severe needs. We can also more equitably fund special education services, so that dollars schools receive are reflective of the actual special education costs they incur. And the California Department of Education can play a role in reducing special education costs by supporting collaborations among schools and districts that generate savings.
The state can also help address the teacher shortage, which is especially acute in Special Education. We can provide financial incentives for teachers to teach special education, streamline the credentialing process for Paraeducators/instructional assistants already working with our students with special needs, and support better collaboration between special and general education teachers, to relieve the burdens on both.
We should encourage greater investment in professional development, not just for special educators, but also for collaboration between special education service providers, general educators, and administrators, and parents, so that there is greater alignment across all the adults working on behalf of students with special needs.
We must shift away from a compliance-based model of special education delivery, to a results-driven one. Because of the many federal and state laws governing special education services, we can too often believe that our job is done when we have simply navigated all the rules. For our students, that is far from enough. The California Department of Education needs to be a partner to schools, relieving them of unnecessary rules where possible, advocating for better statewide policies, and helping to identify and share best practices for serving kids with special needs.
Serving California’s Large English Learner Population
In California, more than one-in-five students is classified as an English Learner— over 1.3 million students. Many of those students are new arrivals to this country, and our public schools must address the language, academic, cultural, and social-emotional needs of this growing student group. With the proper support, flexibility, and accountability from the state, our schools can do just that, and make sure that our public schools are the great equalizers of opportunities that so many came to this country in search of. There are several ways the state can help improve educational opportunities for English Learners, including:
With the 2016 passage of Proposition 58, more schools and families will now have the choice to educate English Learners in a bilingual setting, which will allow for a transition to English proficiency that better aligns with the research on language acquisition, while ensuring language proficiency is no longer a barrier to accessing other educational content. Our state can support school districts that are rolling out these bilingual programs through streamlined credentialing for bilingual educators, and by sharing best practices from those bilingual programs that existed before the passage of Proposition 58.
Our teacher preparation programs in the state’s colleges and universities should continue to place a greater emphasis on English Learners, and develop skills for incorporating English language development strategies into general education content. We also need a focused effort on increasing the number of bilingual teachers.
As with other areas, the CDE can help identify and spread promising practices in this area, of which there are many. Innovative programs around the state, for example, are demonstrating the power of integrating English Language Learner instructional practices into the rest of the curriculum. English Learners are more likely to stay engaged when they are learning English through content, and the instructional practices teachers can employ to make the content accessible to students still learning English are often strong instructional practices that benefit all students.
Finally, we can work with school districts to provide operational flexibility and funding that allows them to offer extended time for English Learners. While innovative practices are blending core content and English development, the fact will remain that many English Learners will simply require additional time to both develop the language, as well as have full access to the rest of the curriculum. Our state should work with school districts to get them the extra time they need.
California has developed an English Learner Roadmap, which provides a strong outline for the significant work there is to do to ensure our English Learners are set up for success in our public schools. It’s time we take the steps necessary to turn this into policies and practices that make our school system more equitable for the more than one million English Learners it serves.
Supporting Our Most Vulnerable Students
Similar to our English Learners, and students with special needs, we have to do a lot more to support other subgroups of students that have been persistently left behind in our public schools, such as African American students (particularly African American males), students that are homeless or in foster care, youth leaving incarceration, students living poverty, students in rural communities, and others. The promise of our public schools is that they must serve all students– that means providing differentiated supports for groups of students that addresses the particular needs of those students.
Our most vulnerable student populations face unique challenges, and often they feel statewide challenges more acutely than most students. As the whole state faces a teacher shortage, for instance, the crisis disproportionately impacts rural communities, students-of-color, and low-income students. Addressing these inequities must be a top priority for California. LCFF has been a good start but there is a lot more to do. We need focused, differentiated strategies to serve our most vulnerable and lowest performing student groups including differentiated funding, targeted professional development for educators, expanded social and emotional support services and, when relevant, expanded learning time. Additionally, the State Superintendent and the CDE need to utilize data to best identify strong instructional practices that improve outcomes for these often-overlooked student groups, and target resources to support and expand those practices.
Community Schools that Address the Whole Child
To serve all kids well, our public schools must respond to the fact that many of our students- particularly our students living in poverty- struggle with a lack of adequate access to healthcare and/or quality nutrition, and may face emotional distress and other burdens. While schools can’t bear the responsibility of solving all society’s problems, they can better support our students by connecting them to various health and human services, when possible.
Our public schools can be community hubs, serving as a central point for a variety of social services that improve outcomes for students. Our state and local communities often provide many layers of services, especially for those with greater need. This is crucial, as we must tend to the needs of the whole child, not merely academics. But it is also a critical component of academic success: a student with a vision problem and no glasses will suffer academically when she can’t see the whiteboard; a student with untreated asthma will likely miss many days of school, and fall behind in his learning. And while there are many social programs that would help alleviate these and many other challenges- everything from free vision testing and glasses, to full-service health clinics- they can be most effective if they are woven into the fabric of the schools, where students and families spend so much of their time.
The state can play an important role in breaking down some of the barriers that exist between our public education system, and other public health and human services. The state can also help districts connect to these types of services more effectively by taking a number of actions, including: (1) providing more flexibility to schools to integrate outside service providers, (2) helping counties create online communities for service providers and districts to create partnerships, (3) sharing best practices and acting as a convener, bringing together the many private and public organizations to determine where there is alignment and opportunity for partnership.
Finally, the state needs to support efforts to extend learning time for students who need it most, by expanding after school programs, summer programs, and other opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. We must advocate for continued and expanded funding of these critical programs, including at the federal level, where recent budget proposals recommend cutting them entirely.
Parent Engagement in Schools
We must actively engage parents, supporting their efforts to be involved in our schools, and in the education of their children. Schools work better, and students learn more, when parents are involved. Actively engaged parents are more aware of what’s happening in the classroom, are better able to support students’ learning at home, and are more prepared to advocate for their children. Schools should provide parents with the information and opportunities they need to be strong advocates for their children and public education.
There are a number of schools and districts throughout the state that have successful programs in place for engaging parents. The state should identify these models and work with districts and counties to replicate them.
Beyond sharing best practices, there are a number of other actions the state superintendent can take in order to help schools better engage parents, including: 1) advocate for a school accountability system that is user-friendly for parents, 2) push for district-level academic and financial reports that are clear and readable, 3) help county offices of education build their capacity around parent engagement so that they can assist districts as they try to improve parent engagement, and 4) work closely with the PTA and other parent organizations to make sure parent voice is heard when it comes to statewide policy making on education.
Non-Profit Charter Schools and Other Quality School Options
No child should be forced to attend a low-performing school because of where he or she lives. California has adopted policies to give parents more power to decide which public schools their children will attend, and more options when their neighborhood schools are not providing a quality education. It is important to preserve and strategically expand high-quality public school options for parents, particularly in communities where the need is greatest. All students benefit when the system offers diverse public school options to meet the needs of diverse students. Policies around public school options can take many forms: charter schools that have flexibility to innovate new practices; magnet programs that focus on a particular academic discipline; and, policies that allow students in underperforming public schools to attend a different public school, even potentially beyond the boundaries of a district. This kind of variety makes sense in a 21st century school system, especially one serving a population as large as ours. It also provides opportunities for families to find the best fit for their kids, and for schools to learn from one another.
Charter schools are among the fastest-growing public school options, and our state has a critical role to play in ensuring that charter schools add value to the entire public education system, as well as to the students it serves.
Our state should continue to support high-quality, non-profit charter schools, especially in areas where there have been few or no high quality public school alternatives. Too many of our high needs communities- typically in urban and rural areas- have been stuck in low performing public schools and this cuts directly against our values. The middle class and upper class are rarely left with no quality school options. They have been able to move to a neighborhood with better schools, navigate magnet systems, or send their kids to private schools. It is our neediest that have been hurt the most by underperforming schools, and we should support quality public charter schools that can give our highest-need families an additional public school opportunity.
There are some unintended consequences from charter schools and they can have some negative impacts on district schools in the areas where they are opened (particularly in the initial years after a charter is opened). Policy can be used to mitigate those impacts. A few policy changes related to charters that could help the overall public school system include: (1) making for-profit charter schools illegal; (2) requiring charter schools to be transparent by following the Brown Act and complying with public records requests; (3) ensuring there are no harmful conflicts-of-interest at charter schools; and (4) ensuring that public schools welcome all students. Charter schools that are consistently failing, turning away students, mishandling public dollars, or treating employees illegally, should be shut down.
We also need to invest in bringing charter schools and traditional public schools together. Charter schools were created in part to act as innovation labs for traditional school districts. Not enough of this is happening. We need to transform the “charter versus district” narrative, by helping districts and county offices adapt to the introduction of charter schools, and helping charter schools be supportive partners to districts. We need to reshape the conversation to focus on how we most effectively serve all students well and how charter schools and district schools can coexist and collaborate in a way that is effective for students.
Finally, our state should continue to forbid private school vouchers. Private schools can teach- or not teach- whatever and whomever they please, and should be funded with private dollars and not public dollars.
Protecting the Rights of all Students
At the core of the promise of a public education is that it is for everyone. No one should be denied full access to great public schools because of their identity or status. It is growing increasingly important for California and the state superintendent to champion and safeguard the rights of all kids to receive a high quality public education in a safe and nurturing environment. No one should be fearful on our school campuses, and no one should slip through the cracks.
There are several steps we can take to make sure our schools are protecting the rights of all students, including:
Expand the California Department of Education Office of Equal Opportunity, to supplant cutbacks in the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Additionally, we should strengthen our partnership with the California Bureau of Children’s Justice, under the state Attorney General. Between these two efforts, we can help ensure that students and their families are free from intimidation and discrimination— regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, ethnicity, or anything else.
Share best practices with schools and districts around creating a welcoming and affirming environment for all students, reducing bullying and harassment, and responding to it swiftly and productively when it occurs.
Invest in educator training and increase access to counselors, so our schools are equipped to support students, whether they are struggling with their identity, dealing with bullying or adverse family experiences, having difficulty accessing health care, navigating their immigration status, or anything else.
Intervene if there are schools that are not safeguarding all students’ rights, to ensure our schools are safe havens for all kids and their families.
California can’t have the best schools in the nation if it continues to spend among the least in the nation on our students. We were once among the top 10 states in the nation in per-pupil funding and are now 41st12, despite having the highest rate of childhood poverty, and the largest number of English Learners. To serve all these students well, we must be among the top states in the country in per-pupil funding. Of course, money alone is not the answer, and we need to pair additional dollars with smart spending on high-impact programs and services.
Like most of the important work in our public schools, getting to among the top states in funding will take some time, but we need to make the commitment, and take the necessary actions to get there. In addition to new dollars, we will need to use every dollar we currently have as wisely as we can, and bring great transparency to education funding to demonstrate that we are being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
A public education is an important value of our state; it is enshrined in the state’s constitution. But without adequate funding and support, that commitment rings hollow. This will be a critical focus, as we need to adequately fund our schools to carry out many of the strategies necessary for our schools to be the best.
As a starting point on increasing funding for public schools, we need to bring much more transparency to how schools and school districts spend their money to build the public’s confidence and trust. With greater transparency, the public will both have greater trust that existing dollars are being used well, and they will also see just how underfunded our schools are, on a per-pupil basis.
Our school districts should post accessible financial information online in a consistent, user-friendly format, and report how new dollars are translating into results for kids. Our county offices of education can support reporting that demonstrates which dollars are ending up in the classroom, and which are funding the bureaucracy. This kind of transparency will help the public better understand the need for additional funds. We can also use this type of reporting to identify which districts are most effective about maximizing dollars to the classrooms, and convene other districts to learn from those practices.
More Money for the Classroom
With greater transparency into how our schools are being funded, we’ll have greater visibility into dollars that are reaching the classroom, and those that are being spent outside of it. The state can support schools in the effort to drive as many dollars to the classroom as possible by providing schools with greater flexibility from the California Education Code. That body of regulations is very prescriptive, and causes many schools and districts to dedicate unnecessary sums of money to compliance and bureaucracy, rather than to classrooms, programs, and services for students.
The California Department of Education can also help spread best practices among counties and districts that streamline central office operations, develop partnerships that create cost savings at-scale, and help schools put more of their funds where they can do the most good: the classroom.
Addressing Long-Term Liabilities
Another growing challenge with maximizing the dollars that are available for the classroom is the unfunded pension liability. The current unfunded liability for the California State Teacher Retirement System (CalSTRS) stands at nearly $100 billion, and the most recent legislation on this topic has shifted more of the financial responsibility from the state to local school districts. Whereas districts had been contributing 8.25% of payroll to pensions, they currently contribute 14.43%, which will gradually increase to 19.1% by 202014. With our schools already underfunded, this has an ever-increasing issue, consuming a significant portion of funding increases.
The current situation is not good for students, employees, or pensioners. The pension funds currently do not have the capital to pay what is owed to current and future retirees, and schools have less and less money to pay current employees, and to provide programs and services to students.
There is clearly no easy solution to such an enormous problem, but it first requires that our elected leaders take ownership of it, and prioritize it. We must quickly bring together political leaders, fiscal experts, labor leaders, education leaders, and others to develop a long-term solution to this issue. We must also build public understanding of how problematic the current situation is for our students, employees, and pensioners. It is time for us to come together and find a path forward to this very complex issue.
A Bigger Piece of the Pie for Education
California’s public schools can be the best in the nation, but they need to be a top priority, and that includes being a top priority in our budget. While education makes up the largest share of the state’s General Fund, spending in other policy areas, such as incarceration, has increased at a faster rate in recent decades. This needs to change.
Our state leaders need to review the budget and identify areas where the better investment would be in public education. This is perhaps most apparent when we consider the state’s investment in Corrections, which has increased dramatically over the years. Not only would some of that money be better spent on education, but there are also numerous studies which demonstrate that larger investments in education mean lower incarceration costs down-the-line.
Reallocating any amount of money in our budget is very difficult, given the entrenched special interests that exist in every area of public policy spending. Irrespective of the difficulty, however, the state has a responsibility to our children and to taxpayers to make these challenging decisions, and to pass a budget that is truly reflective of our state’s values.
New Funding for Public Schools
We need to look closely at all revenue options and make the necessary changes to our tax structure to fully fund our classrooms. Over time, some revenue increases will be necessary to fully fund our public schools. The governor, legislature, state superintendent, labor, business leadership, and others need to look comprehensively at our state’s revenue and tax structure to identify which taxes and policies need to be changed and over what time frame to get our schools to among the top states in per-pupil funding in the country. Leading this effort will be a top priority. Below are a few of the strategies we should pursue as potential ways to bring new revenue to our public schools:
Revisit our tax structure. The governor, legislature, state superintendent, labor, business leadership, and others need to look comprehensively at our state’s revenue and tax structure to identify which taxes and policies need to be changed and over what time frame to fully fund our classrooms.
Lower the voter threshold for passing local school taxes from two-thirds to 55%, to be on par with that of school bonds. There should be parity between these two types of ballot measures, as it doesn’t make sense that schools can raise the revenue they need to build a classroom, but not to pay more to the teacher inside of it. Local communities need greater flexibility when it comes to determining whether to levy these sorts of assessments to support local educational priorities.
Partner with philanthropic organizations to help fund innovative educational opportunities. With the right plan for our public schools and the right state leadership, we can build momentum among philanthropists to invest in a public education innovation fund. Such a fund can be used to jumpstart innovative new pilot projects in our local school districts. While this funding will be small relative to the overall state budget for public education, it can help spark and study creative endeavors, and help the state decide which to scale.
Lead advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C., to protect against any of the proposed federal budget cuts to education programs, such as those that help train teachers, or expand after-school opportunities. And if Washington D.C. cuts the budget for public education, California should quickly make up for those dollars at the state level.
Fund Our Schools Equitably
We must adequately fund all of our schools. We also must ensure that we provide our highest needs students with the additional resources they need to be successful. As discussed extensively here, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is a critically important policy that has the capacity to make our public schools far more equitable. Beyond raising the baseline of funding and preserving the existing LCFF policy, we should consider expanding LCFF to include other classifications of high-needs students, as well. You can read more about our plans to strengthen the Local Control Funding Formula here.
Launch a Marketing Campaign around our Public Schools
To get the increases in funding for public schools that will be needed in California, we will likely need to raise the overall awareness about the situation in California’s public schools and build positive momentum around making California’s public schools the best in the country. One way to do this is to launch a large statewide marketing campaign around the importance of our public schools and the need to fully fund our schools. Most Californians don’t know how low California’s per pupil funding is, especially relative to other states. Many Californians seem to have forgotten how important public schools were to their lives and how important public schools are to a thriving state. We need to change this. We hope to partner with media and Internet companies to run a multi-year marketing campaign to build awareness of the funding issues facing our public schools and to build excitement among Californians to prioritize supporting our schools. Marketing a public policy issue is not a new idea. The federal government invests heavily in marketing the military and California is currently investing millions of dollars to market Covered California. We need to do the same for public schools.