Something is rotten in Sacramento.
The recent release of Ken Burns’s Vietnam documentary transported me back to the politics of my youth and the ugly hypocrisy of Lyndon Johnson, whose story contains a critical lesson for California today.
It’s no secret that Johnson lied about events in the Gulf of Tonkin and about progress in the Vietnam War as he escalated American involvement to 500,000 troops and prosecuted the war with poor judgments that contributed to the deaths of 30,000 Americans during his presidency and countless more Vietnamese. Less well known is that Johnson — who courageously led the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts — discriminated against American minorities and the poor by allowing certain young men to avoid his war through college deferments. Those deferments disproportionately benefited the well-off or well-connected, who were also disproportionately white. I’ve long wondered if LBJ comprehended the hypocrisy —ie, a fighter for civil rights who authorized discrimination — expressed by his actions.
Similar political hypocrisy is on display today in California’s capital city, Sacramento, where self-proclaimed “progressive” politicians talk about educational opportunity and fairness but block financial and teacher quality reforms in order to please big and powerful political interests. In doing so, they condemn poor and minority urban children to classrooms drained of resources by unfunded pension payments and constrained by rules that grant lifetime employment regardless of performance, deny principals the ability to place the finest teachers in those classrooms, and place the worst teachers in the poorest districts. Meanwhile, the well-off or well-connected — many of whom in deep blue California also proclaim themselves to be “progressive” — avoid the consequences by sending their kids to private schools or living in suburbs or neighborhoods in which they subsidize their public schools.
Progressives who don’t walk their talk.
Though not potentially fatal to lives as was Vietnam, California’s educational discrimination is potentially fatal to the dreams of students who will have little chance in a competitive world without high quality educations. Look no further than to my city of San Francisco, home of the most progressive talk in the country. As two recent reports (see * below) about the sad state of performance by poor African-American and Latino school children make clear, when it comes to education San Francisco doesn’t walk its progressive talk. Likewise, blockage of pension reforms in the state capitol by self-proclaimed progressives has financially handcuffed the San Francisco Unified School District so much that this year only 29 percent of its budget is available for certificated teacher salaries.
I have the greatest admiration for LBJ’s work on civil rights — and the greatest disgust for his lies and the de facto discrimination he authorized when drafting troops for Vietnam. My feelings are the same about California politicians who with their words oppose discrimination but with their actions contribute to discrimination in education. By blocking reforms that would allow more tax revenues to reach classrooms, enable the hiring of more teachers and better pay for those teachers, and empower principals to ensure highly qualified teachers and specialists in each classroom, they are doing the work of the devil.
I’ve often wished California’s constitution required governors to send their children to urban public schools.
Neither Johnson nor Richard Nixon had children at risk to being sent to Vietnam. It’s hard not to think that didn’t have an impact on their willingness to risk others’ lives for a dubious and poorly executed cause. Likewise, it’s hard not to think that a California governor without kids in urban public schools understands the consequences of their actions. For example, with the approval of just 62 legislators Governor Brown could amend the Education Code to revise the tenure system and make it easier for principals to dismiss poorly performing teachers. But he hasn’t requested that approval. Instead, he took the opposite path by joining former State Attorney General Kamala Harris and teachers’ unions in resisting a lawsuit brought by poor and minority students in Los Angeles to do just that. Something is rotten when that happens.
Also rotten is that state leaders tell citizens that schools have meaningful local controls when they know that’s not true. They know school districts can not materially change rules relating to tenure, teacher dismissal or pensions without the approval of the governor and legislature. So they pin school districts into a Kafka-esque corner, using their powerful bullhorns to tell citizens they’ve granted power to local schools while knowing full well that all the power that matters still resides with them in Sacramento.
Political philanthropists must hold CA’s leaders accountable.
For now we can’t force California’s leaders to send their kids to urban public schools but at least political philanthropists and voters can hold them accountable. California’s politicians must walk their talk. They should free up school districts to empower principals, reduce tenure rights, fire bad teachers and modify pension arrangements. And they should tell constituents the truth. Now.
*A Dream Deferred: How San Francisco schools leave behind the most vulnerable students; https://reports.innovateschools.org/san-francisco-schools-report-2017-home/
Why is San Francisco the state’s worst county for black student achievement? https://calmatters.org/articles/san-francisco-states-worst-county-black-student-achievement/