It may sound like a cliché, but in my experience as a former teacher and a legislator, education is no doubt the single biggest public policy tool to prepare children for the future.
Schools prepare our children for the challenges to come, and provide the tools to be successful. This means students who receive a quality education begin their adult lives with a distinct advantage over those who are not so fortunate. This achievement gap between young people in different education environments has serious implications on the future of our state.
Once upon a time, California could claim some of the nation’s best K-12 schools. Quality early education created the foundation for growth in our children. We produced capable graduates who were well prepared to become successful members of society.
Unfortunately, great schools are becoming the exception, not the rule, in our state. Our system is failing our students and it’s been clear for some time that California needs to make a change.
While many districts in our community still excel at educating their students, across the state the results are much more troubling. California K-12 schools are ranked 44th in the country according to U.S. News and World Report. The results look worse when examining whether students are meeting math and English standards. Nearly 65 percent of eighth graders fell short of the state math standards, and just over 50 percent of all students failed to meet English language arts standards.
Not only are students not meeting standards, but also the achievement gap is growing among African-American and Latino students. Nearly 83 percent of California students graduate high school but for Latinos the rate is 80.3 percent. It’s worse for African-American students, with a 73.1 graduation rate. Divergent outcomes for different groups of students is a huge issue because education levels are so closely tied to economic mobility.
The establishment in Sacramento believes a one-size-fits-all approach to education is California’s answer. Much of what our schools do is dictated by state law.
The problem with that approach is it handcuffs the ability of teachers and parents to adapt to children’s specific needs. We live in a large, diverse state with some of the greatest cities and richest farmland. Our culture and identity is diverse and our education should be, too. Mandating a single strategy goes against what we cherish about our state – our diversity.
Leaders from both political parties have agreed that statewide solutions from Sacramento are the wrong approach.
There is a better option. Local control is based on the principle that the people closest to the students are the best prepared to make important decisions about their education. They are the people most invested in the wellbeing and success of teachers, students and communities. Under local control, the state government plays a limited role in influencing the education system.
Giving power back to local school districts will improve education in California. Administrators hold more accountability under this system and are personally tied to the success or failure of the institutions. They are more likely to improve the school quality for students because it reflects on their performance directly. Communities will have the power to reshape the educational experience for their children as they see fit, instead of meeting rigid state mandates.
While the state has taken steps in recent years to give more discretion to districts with their finances, other reforms are badly needed to empower them to manage their schools without being micromanaged by Sacramento.
The debate is settled over school performance. California isn’t making the grade. A broad approach cannot address the educational needs of a state as diverse as ours, and the failure to close the achievement gap is something that must be immediately addressed. The best way forward is to acknowledge that the current direction is failing and make a course correction. By giving power back to local school districts, educators and administrators can create the best learning environment possible for California’s children.
Teachers and parents know their children’s needs better than a state bureaucrat. Giving local school districts more control will put California back on the right track and make sure we are working toward giving every student, regardless of their background, a great education.
Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, represents the 36th Assembly District, which includes the Antelope Valley and portions of the Santa Clarita Valley.