Stormy Weather: Public Education in California

Braving the onslaught of unseasonable stormy weather last night, EMVY attended the Zocalo Public Square Lecture last night on the state of higher education in California. Hosted at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, Zocalo put together a panel of insightful education researchers and activists who conducted a thought-provoking conversation about the problems, causes, and possible solutions to the myriad strains being put on California’s public education systems. Moderated by LA Times editorial pages editor Jim Newton, the panel brought together Michele Siquerios from the Campaign for College Opportunity, Professor Gary Orfield from UCLA, and Hans Johnson from the Public Policy Institute of California.

The focus of the evening’s conversation centered on the PPIC’s finding that by 2025 California will, projectively, fail nearly one-million students by denying them access to public high education. To date, California has one of the nation’s most comprehensive systems of public education. It is a network topped-off with the University of California (UC) system educating one-eighth of all high school graduates in CA, followed by the California State University (CSU) system that takes responsibility for one-third of all graduates, and finally the elaborate system of Junior Colleges (JC) who pick-up the latter two-thirds of high school grads. This Master Plan for higher education in CA was authored in 1969, moving CA into the spotlight as a state with one of the best systems of public education in the country. “It was a plan that worked”, commented Prof. Orfield, “in 1969. But the plan has not been amended since.” Accordingly, Prof. Orfield called out CA lawmakers and representatives as “short-sighted” in their solutions to long-term problems of Californians. If, as the panelists commented, the primary purpose of the state government is education, then CA is in need of a constitutional convention. There can be no change in education without a change in the governance of the state. Deregulation of the funds for public education, allowing universities to better navigate budget cuts and expenditures, was one of several specific problems that panel members believed could be fixed with a convention.

Conversation did not stop at budget cuts. As the talk went on, panelists waded their way into the problems of the CSU, junior college, and K-12 systems–the branches of the education system that feel the greatest burden in providing students with the proper academic preparation to enter into bachelor degree programs. “Getting students ready for four-year programs puts a huge stra720 Santa Monica @ Vermontin on the JC and CSU systems,”  noted Ms. Siquerios, “they are the ones left responsible for catching students up.” This was a turning-point in the discussion. Only thirty to forty percent of the entering class in CSUs graduate in six years. This means that over fifty percent of all students who enter JCs and CSUs, two-thirds of all high school graduates in CA, cannot earn a bachelors degree in six years. Emvy found this statistic inconceivable.

It was then that the LAUSD teachers began to speak out, articulating the frustration that has been plaguing the school district for years. What can we do to help our students be prepared for college by the end of high school? Do we leave those students that fail behind? Should we create more summer programs? Do we need more money? How do we reach out to the isolated Latino populations who compose the majority of new students entering the public system? How do we keep standardized tests from dominating the curriculum in schools? Is it possible to get teachers excited about teaching again and, in turn, students inspired to learn?

A call to action was heard loud and clear as the audience stepped up to the microphone asking challenging questions both to the panelists and their fellow audience members. Passion and fatigue poured out of everyone’s exasperated responses until a final audience member made a desperate plea to good will and hope. “Can’t people donate their time to the children in the community, to help them achieve so our society  can prosper in the future?” Somebody had to say it. The panel was left with little left to say.

If there are any conclusions that come out of this evening, it is that mending the public education system is going to take a combination of efforts from all fronts: government, taxpayers, students, school administrators, parents, and neighbors. Every aspect of the system effects another and patience has run its course. The problems need to be addressed now. As Ms. Siquerios candidly noted, “The cuts are no longer on the fringes–they are cutting into the bone.”

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~ by Em on June 4, 2009.

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