Americans are shockingly weak in civics. The latest Annenberg Public Policy Center survey finds that only 39 percent could name the three branches of U.S. government and less than one-quarter know that Congress has to muster a two-thirds vote to override a presidential veto. The results are in line with a study by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation earlier this year which revealed that more than half of those polled do not know we have nine Supreme Court justices. Sixty percent didn’t know which countries we fought in WWII.
And it doesn’t stop there. In math, the Annie E. Casey foundation reports that 67 percent of 8th-graders in American public schools score below proficient in math. In a survey of 55,000 9th-graders, the non-profit YouthTruth finds that just half felt academically prepared for college. The Center for American Progress reports that between 40 and 60 percent of first year American college students need remedial help in English, math or both. Scores on the ACT, a standardized test used for college admissions, hit a 20-year low in 2018.
Why are public schools not working? Unionistas and bureaucrats invariably claim it’s because schools are underfunded, and insist that we need to “invest more in public education.” What none of the above tell you is that, nationally, we spend about $668 billion dollars a year, which translates to $13,119 per public school student enrolled 2016–2017. That’s an increase of 15 percent (in constant dollars) since 2000-2001. Compared to the rest of the world, we are right near the top with only Norway outspending us.
California schools are particularly troubled. WalletHub compared the 50 states and D.C. across 29 key education metrics, and finds that the Golden State is 38th in the country. Fewer than half of high school graduates meet the minimum requirements for the state’s public universities, according to CA Department of Education data. The state has been “investing” in education at increasing amounts and is now at a record high, but it won’t matter. Money is not the problem, and spending even more won’t help.
So what should we do?
We’ve tried litigation. The 2012 “Students Matter” case aimed to rejigger the state’s tenure statute that forces districts to decide after new teachers are on the job only 18 months whether or not to grant them permanent job status. The lawsuit also targeted seniority laws, which dictate that when an economic downturn forces layoffs, a Last In/First Out (LIFO) regimen requires pink slips to be based strictly on seniority, not competency. After four years of legal wrangling, a California appeals court struck down a trial judge’s ruling that declared the laws governing teacher firing and layoffs are unconstitutional. Hence, business as usual.
Now we have a new lawsuit set to go to court in October. Ella T. v. The State of California was filed in December 2017 on behalf of 10 students. The suit claims that on measures of literacy and basic education, California has eleven of the lowest performing twenty-six districts in the country.
As reported by The 74, the lawsuit demands that:
- students have enough trained teachers who can teach the curriculum and be able to provide individualized intervention when necessary.
- teachers get the classroom resources and professional development they need so they can deliver meaningful literacy instruction.
- parents are included in their children’s literacy education and schools communicate with them and give them the tools they need to help their children.
- schools provide conditions that allow for learning, such as social-emotional support.
While the lawsuit accurately describes the problems, its prescribed fixes are pretty much right out of the teacher union playbook – more money for teachers, more resources, more professional development, etc. But there are much more simple, direct and less expensive solutions to what ails education in the Golden State and elsewhere.
- Give principals more power. They should be responsible for their school’s success. Let them get rid of low performing teachers. If schools don’t improve, can the principal.
- To improve teacher quality, don’t tinker around the edges. Eliminate the antiquated seniority and tenure provisions in the state education code.
- Pay good teachers more; get rid of the industrial-style step-and-column method of compensating them.
- And most of all, empower parents. They know their kids best and should be allowed to pick the best school for them. And since we are funding students, not school buildings, government bureaucrats or unions, let the public money follow the child to charters, private schools, homeschools, etc.
Panacea? No. But it sure would be a helluva lot better than what we have at this time.
Now if someone can figure out how to get the teachers unions to go along, it would be an endeavor worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. The unions continually bash charters and private schools, charging that they are not “accountable.” Yet, there is no institution in the U.S. less accountable than public education. The bureaucrats and union leaders don’t pay the cost if a school doesn’t properly educate children. The kids who are forced to attend failure factories, as well as the taxpayers who subsidize them, are the losers. This must change.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network– a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.