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Special Report: States of Debate: The Golden State Loses Its Luster

After having a rich and unique history as an education leader, California starts to crumble under fiscal uncertainty. The third in a three state series.

From the glamour and glitz of Hollywood to the technological hub of Silicon Valley, from the majestic Redwoods to the surfers off the Malibu beaches, California is a state of contrasts in many ways, including its politics. A progressive, largely Democratic state and a bellwether for the rest of the country on sensitive issues, including opposition to the Iraq war and support for same-sex marriage, it elected two conservative Republican actors, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as governors over the last 40 years.

The contrasts extend to its public education system, from the renowned University of California system, which employs more Nobel Prize laureates than any other institution in the world, to a K12 system once considered the gold standard of the country, but in recent years, now hovering near the bottom of the states in terms of student achievement and per-pupil spending.

Although no authorities make a direct link to California's early history, the contrasts reflect in some ways the cultural and political influences that shaped California and still do, from early pride in public education's role in the state's development to a current school financing crisis that Californians seem unsure how to resolve.

"California, Here I Come," a song written for the 1921 Broadway musical Bombo, isn't California's official state song but is often called that. Although the lyrics reflect how an absent Californian misses the state, the title also fits the size and contrasting elements of the state's population. From early Asian, Spanish and European settlers who joined Native Americans already there, to later newcomers from across the United States and the world, California became one of the most diverse states in the country and the one with the highest population— 35 million in 2002, according to U.S. census estimates. "Eureka," meaning "I have found it!" as the early settlers and their followers did, is the state motto.

Adventurous Settlers

The earliest Californians, in addition to Native Americans, were adventurous Asians who had first made their way across the Bering Strait to Alaska thousands of years ago, when a warmer climate and a land bridge that no longer exists made travel easier, according to "The First Peoples of California," a document in the California History Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Spanish explorers first visited lower California, now part of Mexico, in 1533. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator sailing for the Spanish Crown, was the first European to set foot in what now is California, landing in 1542 on the shores of San Diego Bay and claiming California for Spain.

In 1978, Paul Gann, center, and Howard Jarvis, both politicians, celebrate when votes support Proposition 13, which they co-authored. It put more strain on the state to fund education.

The name "California" was taken from "Las Serges de Esplandian," a Spanish romance written about 1510 that described an imaginary island paradise. When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, California became a state in the first Mexican empire. The California Republic was founded in an 1846 revolt against Mexico that became the Mexican-American War and was governed by the U.S. military until the constitutional convention in 1849 established civilian government, leading to statehood a year later.

Meanwhile, gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter's Mill, near Sacramento, spawning the California Gold Rush, which reached its height in 1852 with 67,000 new arrivals, including 20,000 from China. Many of them ultimately joined other Chinese who had left the mining camps to move to San Francisco, where they established the country's first "Chinatown."

Early Schools

Before California formally became an American state in 1850, at least one American school had been established within its confines, according to an article in the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco by Will C. Wood, a state superintendent of public instruction in the 1920s.

In 1846, Olive Mann Isbell, a niece of Horace Mann who came west from Ohio with her husband, a doctor, opened the first English school in California in an old adobe near the Santa Clara Mission, a few miles south of what now is San Francisco Bay. Without school materials, she wrote the alphabet on the backs of her students' hands, according to historical accounts.

The framers of the first state constitution in 1849 set the pattern for the state's role in educating its citizens, a year before California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state. Delegates to the convention hotly debated the theory of public education, according to "A Thumbnail History of Public Education in California," issued in revised form in 2007 by the state education department.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger meets with students at Rosa Parks Middle School in Sacramento last January, as he called on lawmakers to approve federal Race to the Top funding.

In the constitution that they wrote, delegates created the elective post of state superintendent of public instruction, now held by Jack O'Connell. In 1852, a state board of education was established, comprised initially of the governor, superintendent and surveyor general.

The new public school system was founded on principles that included local administration of the schools using state aid, according to the Department of Education document. In 1866, state responsibility for uniform textbooks and courses of study was followed by compulsory school attendance for children 8 to 14 years old.

In 1911, the law was changed so that districts received state aid only for children in school, not all children living in the district. Textbooks became free in 1912, and local school boards were given the responsibility to set their own budgets and taxes in 1921. The superintendent of public instruction was virtually the entire state department of education until 1913, when the legislature provided for appointing three commissioners—in elementary, secondary and vocational education—to assist the superintendent. This led to the legislature's formal creation of an education department in 1921.

Complex California

More recently, the state has faced some challenges. "Dramatic enrollment growth and burgeoning diversity," particularly in the last 20 years, "make California's public education challenges more complex than those in many other states," concludes a report, "Student Achievement in California: Steady Progress Made, Faster Improvement Needed," issued in 2004 by WestEd, a San Francisco-based research agency. This growth in enrollment and diversity are reflected in the 6.3 million K12 students in California's schools today. "Our immigrants after World War II came from Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas—places like that. Now they come from Mexico, Asia— wherever," says Peter Schrag, a California journalist and author who has written extensively about the state's schools and how they are financed.

California's contrasts, from the glitz of Hollywood to the indebted school district budgets, makes for an unfortunate but interesting tale these days.

Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, identifies the current student population as 48 percent Latino, 8 percent African-American, 31 percent white, and 8 percent Asian-American, with those of other heritages making up the remaining 5 percent. More than 100 languages are spoken in some districts, he says. A quarter of the students come from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and many come with limited family resources, says Schrag. "That makes a difference in all kinds of ways," he says, including how they need to be taught and the resources the schools need to be able to teach them, which are severely limited by the current financing crisis.

Even administrators have been cutdue to the crisis. "We have 40 percent fewer administrators and teachers than the average school in America," adds John Mockler, California's former education secretary in 2000-2001 who now runs John B. Mockler Associates, a Sacramento-based consulting firm that specializes in education policy and finance. "We have fewer qualified bodies dealing with a more complex set of kids."

No Longer a Leader

"I regard education as a subject of particular importance here in California, from our location and the circumstances under which we are placed, the immense value of our lands and the extent and wealth of the country," stated Robert Semple, the delegate from Solano County, at the 1849 constitutional convention in Monterey. "I think," he continued, "that here, above all places in the Union, we should have, and we possess the resources to have, a well regulated system of education."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell points to a "pink slip" last March indicating that nearly 22,000 teachers statewide could be laid off due to budget cuts.

Those resources today are the focus of a developing legal battle that could determine the course of education in California for years to come. In a lawsuit—Robles- Wong et al. v. State of California, filed in May in the Alameda County Superior Court—several major constituencies of California's K12 system are asking that the current way of financing education in the state be declared unconstitutional and that California be required to establish a new system that gives all students an equal opportunity to meet the academic goals set by the state.

In addition to the plaintiff, Maya Robles-Wong, a 16-year-old junior at Alameda High School, the suit is being brought by the Association of California School Administrators, the California School Boards Association, the California State PTA and nine districts. "We urgently need to prioritize this responsibility to our students and future generations," O'Connell says.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes the legal challenge. His office responded with: "We will continue to fight to keep education a budget priority," according to state Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss. Because of term limits, both O'Connell and Schwarzenegger, who are nearing the end of their second terms, cannot run again this year, so new leaders, to be elected in November, will control the future course of public education in California that the outcome of the case will help determine.

The path to the lawsuit was started in 1978, when voters approved Proposition 13, a ballot initiative that essentially capped local property taxes and thereby restricted local funding for schools. That led the state to assume a larger role in financing the schools.

The most devastating part of Prop 13, says Mockler, was requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise state and local taxes, allowing a small minority to block funding increases for schools. "The public schools began a slow and steady descent," he says.

"California was one of the leading states in terms of both student achievement and funding for our schools, and now we've fallen to near the bottom for both," says Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. In student achievement, California ranked next to last among participating states on performance by fourth-graders in the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In the mid-1960s, California was ranked fifth in the nation in per-pupil spending, according to a history of school finance produced by the Los Altos School District. The state has fallen to 47th in per-pupil spending, nearly $2,400 below the national average. O'Connell says that the state education department is operating on almost $17 billion less than it had anticipated two years ago.

"We are disinvesting in public education. It's wrong, it's unacceptable, and we need to change direction," he says. Schwarzenegger has "been dismal on funding," he adds. "He's been terrible,just terrible, for education," agrees Mockler.

Maya Robles-Wong, a junior in Alameda, explains a lawsuit that she fi ed against the state last May. The lawsuit seeks to force the governor and legislature to develop a new system to fund public schools.

Last March, school districts sent preliminary layoff notices to nearly 22,000 teachers, on top of more than 16,000 teachers who lost their jobs last year. Schwarzenegger and the legislature continue to grapple with a state budget deficit now at $19.1 billion. At some schools, at least half the teachers have received layoff notices this year, says Wells.

Meanwhile, O'Connell says the growing student population presents continuing challenges, with 25 percent of students now coming to school to learn English and more than half of all students qualifying for free or reduced lunches. "We need to meet the individual needs of each student," he asserts, although he admits that doing so requires funding his department does not have.

Future Problems for Successors

As O'Connell and Schwarzenegger prepare to leave office, other education issues are festering that probably will be left to their successors to resolve. One is what to do about charter schools. In 1992, California was the second state to pass a charter school law, and more than 800 charter schools now serve 341,000 students, with an average of 50 new schools opening annually, reports the California Charter Schools Association.

Three of the leading gubernatorial candidates agree that more charter schools are needed because their students perform better than traditional public school students. But recent failures of some schools, including one created and supervised by Stanford University's School of Education, have raised questions about the charter school movement in the state.

The East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School, which was in the Ravenswood City School District, was closed by the district's board of trustees in June because of poor academic performance. Some educators also are wondering whether the "math wars" that raged in California in the 1990s might erupt again. The first conflict led to reforms that favored problem-solving, applications and group work over traditional teaching.

At issue now is whether California should adopt standards for what students should learn in math as well as English. State budget issues notwithstanding, Schwarzenegger is seeking to gain funding and improve California's schools in other ways. In January, he signed legislation to make the state "highly competitive" for federal funding in President Obama's national Race to the Top initiative, although a central provision of the program—ending seniority as the primary criteria for teacher pay—has drawn the opposition of California's powerful teachers' union.

As a result, the six Marin County districts that joined the state's second application for Race to the Top funding are five fewer than applied for the first round. A bipartisan legislative package he approved also called for turning around the 5 percent of persistently low-performing schools; authorizing open enrollment in other schools for students in the lowest-performing schools; giving parents authority to require local school boards to fix failing schools; and affirming that local districts can use student- and teacher data systems to evaluate teachers and principals, subject to collective bargaining.

"California now has a bold action plan to empower parents, embrace accountability, transform underperforming schools, and help give every child equal access to education and to success," Schwarzenegger declared when he signed the legislation.

Four months later, the lawsuit was filed. Wood, the former state superintendent, wrote in 1925, "No other people have been so generous in [their] support of education as the people of California." Today, mounting financing needs that clash with the limitations imposed by Proposition 13 have challenged that generosity, leaving it to the courts to try to settle this conflict in developing public education in California.

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION.

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