How To Save California’s Public Schools

California spends more than $80 billion, or more than $14,000 per student, on K-12 education yet poor and minority students in California perform worse than poor and minority students in Texas, which spends less. Reasons cited for California’s weaker performance include (i) less non-classroom teacher support (i.e., fewer reading and language specialists, librarians, vice principals, school nurses, etc. relative to student population) and (ii) rules protecting ineffective teachers from dismissal. Two recent events worsen those conditions in California:

1. In 2014, the California Legislature imposed an additional $5 billion per year of pension costs on California’s school districts in order to bail out the state teacher pension fund. As a result, pension costs will double over the next five years, leaving even less money for non-classroom teacher support.

2. In April, a California Court of Appeal reversed a lower-court decision in Vergara v. California, a suit brought by poor and minority students in the Los Angeles public school system alleging that California’s teacher tenure and dismissal rules violate their rights to a quality education. As a result of the appellate ruling, California’s six million public school students remain hostage to rules protecting ineffective teachers.

The California Legislature is the key to solving both problems. The teacher tenure and dismissal problem is easy to solve, because the Legislature writes the Education Code that governs dismissal and tenure. No matter how courts rule, the California Legislature could — and should — write the Education Code to permit the dismissal of ineffective teachers and to prohibit forms of tenure that harm students. All that’s missing is a sufficient number of state legislators with the courage to do so.

Solving the pension problem is more difficult but one thing is clear: The costs of meeting past pension promises should not be imposed on today’s schoolchildren. Instead, that cost should be imposed on the generations that made and received the pension promises and the politicians and organizations that knew a financial crime was (and still is) being committed through the deliberate under-funding of pension promises. All that’s missing is a sufficient number of state legislators with the courage to do so.

The 2016 and 2018 elections to the California Legislature will determine whether there will be a sufficient number of legislators with the courage to address those problems in the near future. That’s because there will be no open State Assembly seats after 2016 until 2024 and one-third of the State Senate turns over in 2016 and 2018. Therefore the time to support courageous candidates for the California Legislature is now.

Recently the mother of a 5th grader in a small Northern California school district told me her son’s favorite subject is math but that she and her husband dread 7th grade when their son is scheduled to be in the math class of a teacher long criticized for ineffective and even abusive teaching. She and other parents have called on the school principal to act, but the principal says the Education Code ties his hands. No California parent should have to worry that an ineffective or abusive teacher is teaching her child or that classroom money is being diverted to a pension fund bailout. Top-quality education is a sine qua non for success in a global economy. It is your California Legislature that determines that quality and more. Don’t blame teachers’ or other government employee unions, who behave no differently than military contractors and other businesses whose objectives when dealing with governments are to maximize revenues and minimize obligations. Instead, blame the legislators who write the rules and then do something about it through effective political philanthropy.

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