In the Golden state, leaden school scores

Amid funding cuts, California's school system has gone from being a national model to bottom-tier status.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When she looks out at the classes she teaches at Los Angeles High School here, Cynthia Augustine, sees students from Russia, Mongolia, Ghana, Sudan, Korea, Philippines, and Thailand.

That doesn't include Spanish speakers from 12 Central and South American countries, whose numbers have risen dramatically in the past decade.

The range of languages is one reason, she says, why the nation's most populous state is having trouble providing the top-quality education for which it was known a few decades ago.

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The state is home to one of every eight US children school and spends half its yearly budget - $50 billion - on education. Yet a recent RAND study found that on most measures from funding to academic achievement, California has slipped from No. 1 in the late 1960s to below 40th today.

"If you ask why California schools have gone from the nation's best to among its worst, I would say the influx of non-English speaking immigrants tops the list of reasons," says Ms. Augustine, a 30-year teaching veteran.

An array of languages and cultures is just one factor behind the Golden State's classroom challenge. Debate on the problem, in fact, is now revisiting paths well worn during previous reform attempts in the late 1980s and mid-1990s - as the state tries to right itself. Experts point to a web of interrelated causes. The 1978 Proposition 13 tax revolt redirected funding and local control for schools. Per-pupil spending has declined, enrollment has been rising, teacher salaries are low, and class sizes are high despite a high-profile attempt to reduce them in recent years.

"We have America's biggest and most diverse student population, 1 of 4 which is learning English," says Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction. "Forty percent are from low socioeconomic conditions and some of our districts have to shut down for six weeks in winter because parents move to the Mexico crop fields as migrant workers."

Among RAND's most disturbing findings: Since 1990, average reading and math scores for fourth and eighth graders ranked California above only Mississippi and Louisiana; 15 percent of the state's 287,000 teachers are without full credentials; teacher pay falls below the national average (adjusted for cost of living); and despite a major initiative to reduce class sizes in K-3 grades in 1997, the state still has the nation's second-highest student-to-teacher ratio

"California has a whole host of systemic reasons why it has not coped well with the increasing challenges, over the years," says Stephen Carroll, author of the RAND study. "We have a tendency to try quick fixes.... We have not properly analyzed how very large and complicated our system is."

Pumping up the state's school system by sending "more money to the classroom" was a Top 10 priority campaign pledge by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was elected governor in 2003. But his administration is facing a $9 billion budget gap in his second year so the governor has been forced to make across-the-board cuts.

The California Teachers Association (CTA) now claims Governor Schwarzenegger has reneged on a promise last year to pay back $2 billion he borrowed from education funding during last year's budget crisis. And they say Schwarzenegger wants to weaken Proposition 98, a 1988 guarantee of minimum funding for schools.

"The governor can play with the numbers all he wants, but it doesn't change the fact that he broke his promise," says CTA President Barbara Kerr. More evidence of financial hardship, she says, is layoff notices delivered to 2,400 teachers.

But Schwarzenegger claims that during a severe budget crisis, his commitment to education is still strong. His finance department defends the squeeze on school funding, saying is their only other choice would be worse: cuts in health and human services.

"Any more reductions to health and services would have impacted families, low-income kids, and the developmentally disabled," says H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state finance department.

At the same time, the Bush administration has been pressuring the state to better identify failing school districts. Federal law calls for states to list districts in which students have not improved standardized English and math scores two years in a row. But the state has been allowing districts to avoid the list if students from low-income households reach a set score on a different measurement.

The US Department of Education is telling California state school administrators that if they do not change the way they classify struggling districts under the federal "No Children Left Behind Act," they will lose federal dollars.

As state superintendent, Mr. O'Connell and other experts see such pressure as an unfair Catch-22 that further threatens budgets.

"We support the goals of 'No Child Left Behind,' " says O'Connell. "But [federal] methodology in trying to define good schools and bad has been inconsistent with our own data. They don't recognize the diversity of California education."

Such comments underscore the challenges facing frontline teachers like L.A. High School's Cynthia Augustine who, faced with more than 20 nationalities in her classroom, says that funding isn't the only problem.

No. 1, she says: "The bureaucracy needs to be cut so that we have fewer administrators doing nameless tasks and more money for teachers in the classroom." And No. 2: Parental involvement needs to increase.

"For me it's a tossup whether not having enough money is the biggest problem or parents who don't care enough about their kids," says Ms. Augustine. On parent-conference night, she says, only 1 of 200 parents show up, but when the L.A. district attorney recently sent letters threatening jail to parents of those whose children had missed 10 or more school days, 1,200 showed up.

"Wish I'd had that much interest for my parent conferences," says Augustine.

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