Three measures mention big promises, scant details for education

Teacher Nicholas Patey teaches calculus in an empty classroom at Golden Valley High School on Thursday, August 27, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

The California Secretary of State’s Office announced three similar efforts asking voters to amend the state’s Constitution to guarantee a “high-quality public education” are now being circulated for signatures. 

The effort by Students Matter, which described itself in a news release as a coalition of educators, parents and civil rights leaders, troubled some local experts who found the effort exceedingly vague — which appears to be part of the intent. 

The language of the first version, which is substantially similar to two other versions submitted, is all of 54 words, not including its title: 

“Amends California Constitution to require the state and its school districts to ‘provide a high-quality public education to all public school students,’ the requirements of which are not defined and will depend on how the measure is implemented by the Legislature, state agencies, and public schools (including charter schools), and interpreted by court decisions.” 

The effort is being backed by campaign co-chair Antonio Villaraigosa, and its brevity is modeled after Proposition 1, a 78-word proposition on the ballot that successfully codified the state’s position on reproductive freedom, according to organizers. 

“As a coalition of leaders in the education civil rights and social justice/education equity community, we are pleased to be able to move to the next phase of our campaign to make high-quality public education a civil right for all California children,” Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, said in a prepared statement. “There are many efforts by right-wing activists across the country who are trying to wage a culture war on education and restrict students’ rights under the guise of ‘parents’ rights. 

“Many of the same Californians who might think ‘it can’t happen here’ would be surprised that a student’s right to a high-quality public education does not already exist in California.” 

When asked what Students Matter’s ultimate goal was with respect to codifying such a guarantee, Richard Salazar, a spokesman for Students Matter, referred to Villaraigosa’s comments. 

Former Newhall School District Superintendent Marc Winger said the vagueness of the wording was problematic for a number of reasons.  

“You have to ask why the authors wrote the proposed language the way they did,” Winger said, also questioning how the finances of any improvements would be funded under the current system.  

An analysis of the proposed amendments notes: “No direct fiscal effects on the state or public schools because the measure does not require any change to current policies or programs. Depending on how the measure is legally interpreted by the courts and implemented by the state and public schools, there could be fiscal effects that are unknown and highly uncertain.” 

Winger also said that a “simple fix” of editing Section IX in the state’s Constitution could clear up any language concerns and “leaves the path to improvement unencumbered.” 

Joe Messina, a William S. Hart Union High School District board member, said the proposals were too unclear to take a position on, expressing a similar concern raised by Winger: Who would get to determine what’s considered a “high-quality education”? 

“You couldn’t write anything more vague,” Messina said, adding he didn’t like the idea of leaving the answer to the question of “high-quality education” to the courts or the Legislature.  

Here’s the wording that’s being circulated to voters. No. 1; No. 2; No. 3.

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