California Dystopia Update: The January 2020 edition

By Chris Reed
January 14, 2020

On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom presented a 2020-21 state budget that includes more money for K-12 public schools than ever before. But even as metrics-driven education reforms over the past quarter-century have paid major dividends in both union states (Massachusetts, New Jersey) and non-union states (Florida, Texas), California lawmakers have never seriously considered trying to link increased school funding to passage of reforms gauging teachers’ and schools’ effects on student achievements.

Not only that, instead of making it easier to deduce the quality of schools, the Legislature in 2013 passed a law championed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown that led to the introduction of the California School Dashboard — a confusing color-coded online tool that seems designed to make it harder, not easier, to judge a school’s or school district’s academic performance. 

This is no surprise to those who know how Sacramento works.  A rule of thumb when evaluating the prospects of an education-related bill getting through the Legislature: Is its primary goal helping the unionized adult employees who work in schools or improving student achievements? Its chances are good only if it’s the former.

The results are predictable and depressing. Authorities report record highs in California graduation rates — allegedly 83 percent in 2018 — while graduating classes show no improvement in college readiness. The implications of this are obvious.

State-by-state comparisons should carry a painful sting for all the Californians who have pride in their state. The Urban Institute takes the raw data provided by the biennial National Association of Educational Progress tests of math and reading competence of fourth- and eighth-graders and adjusts the results for ethnic and socioeconomic factors. This provides a clear measure of the quality of education that states provide to disadvantaged minorities. In 2019’s weighted scores, California ranked behind Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina — sometimes far behind — in all four categories.

So what big changes are planned to address this failing – and to better prepare students for jobs? Perhaps the state that’s home to Silicon Valley could emulate Virginia and require that computer science be a high school graduation requirement.

Nope. Instead, 2020 looks likely to be the year that taking ethnic studies is made a graduation requirement — at least if educators can agree on a curriculum that doesn’t value some groups over others. Last year, that task proved beyond the capacity of a group of educators named by the state school board to come up with the outlines of an initial course.

Could a well-crafted ethnic studies course be valuable to students? Or course. But when minority students in California are looking up to better-educated minority students in Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina, the reasons to question state lawmakers’ priorities are obvious.

The leading candidate for February’s CDU column topic: housing and homelessness. This California crisis looks even worse from the inside.

Memory Lane Department: On this month in 1999, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System ramped up lobbying for what would become Senate Bill 400. CalPERS told state lawmakers that a 50 percent retroactive increase in pension benefits for state employees could be enacted without any cost to California taxpayers because the then-booming stock market would never stop booming. No, I am not making this up. That September, the measure passed the Senate 39-0 and the Assembly 70-7. This bipartisan suspension of belief in the realities of how financial markets work has gone terribly for, yes, California taxpayers. The cost of state pensions to taxpayers is now 43 times higher than it was in 1999. No, I am not making that up.

Penal Rental Department: The Bay Area Craigslist has a listing for a two-bedroom, 1,144-square-foot condo for $3,350 a month in Emeryville, between Oakland and Berkeley. Homelessness increased 513 percent from 2018 to 2019 in Emeryville. But look on the bright side — the condo has a view of San Francisco Bay, not just squalor.

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Chris Reed is a contributing editor to California Policy Center, and an editorial writer and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisreed99.

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