Politics & Policy

Where Even Good Is Bad

California�s education quagmire.

With the recall election only eight weeks away it is far from certain who will be running California next year. But whoever gains office can be sure of one thing. The state’s public-education system is in miserable shape, even worse than recent assessments by the federal government.

Data gathered as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act found that about 70 percent of California schools fail to meet standards for yearly improvement. While shocking enough, that statistic fails to convey the depth of the problem. In California, even the best students read poorly.

To qualify for the California state-university system, students must score in the top 33 percent of the high-school graduating class. Last year 59 percent of these students had to take remedial courses in English, mathematics, or both. At CSU Dominguez Hills, 75.4 percent of entering freshmen needed remedial instruction in math and 78.9 percent in English. At CSU Los Angeles, 64.3 percent needed remediation in math and 77.9 percent in English

The high remediation levels confirm the failure of K-12 education and prompted CSE chancellor Charles Reed to state the obvious, that “a whole generation of kids can’t read.” If six out of ten of California’s best and brightest need remedial work, one may conclude that many of the others are functionally illiterate. They advance due to a system of social promotion that sets up students for failure in higher education or the job market.

According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress, a paltry 21 percent of California’s fourth-grade students score at or above or the proficiency level. Put more simply, the vast majority of students languish below the proficiency level.

The California Education Report Card, a report by the Pacific Research Institute, noted that last year only 36 percent of fourth-grade students scored at or above proficiency on the English portion of the California Standards Test. In other words, 64 percent of these students, a large majority, are failing to achieve the proficiency that they will need to advance.

These results are among the lowest in the nation. California also ranks next to last in high-school graduates who had taken first-year chemistry, just 35 percent. Only 56 percent had taken geometry, 18 points below the national average.

These and other dismal results betray a system marinated in mediocrity. The standard response of California educrats is that the state is not spending enough. The California Education Report Card reveals that claim to be false. In 2002-03, total education funding in California was approximately $9,200 per pupil, a nearly 29-percent inflation-adjusted increase over the amount spent ten years ago. Much of the money gets absorbed by layers of bureaucratic sediment.

There is some hope in California’s tough academic content standards, which emphasize core knowledge and skills. Schools that have seriously implemented the standards in the classroom are experiencing improved performance. Standards and accountability, however, are under attack by teacher unions.

The state’s high-school exit exam, a measure favored by current governor Gray Davis, has been postponed. Students would have to pass the test, at about a tenth-grade level, and with repeated opportunities, to received a high-school diploma. That state officials nixed the exam reveals a leadership afraid to face the full extent of its failure.

Charter schools are another bright spot but also under attack. Teacher unions are fighting to block a charter school for low-income, minority students at the recently closed Sacramento High School, a project backed by former NBA star Kevin Johnson and one with first-rate staffing and strong community support.

California’s voter-approved ban on bilingual education has also yielded improvements. Yet English immersion is also under attack from legislators, including Jackie Goldberg, chair of the state assembly’s education committee.

The California Education Report Card reveals a state that produces low achievement despite high spending, a state where special interests undermine accountability and testing, and a state currently launching attacks on some of the few successful measures. A thorough study of this report should convince parents, taxpayers, and lawmakers of the tough tasks ahead for California.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy.

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