California Lawmakers Sacrifice Education for Politics with AB 1955

Andrew Davenport

Policy & Research Associate

Andrew Davenport
June 7, 2024

California Lawmakers Sacrifice Education for Politics with AB 1955

While California faces a significant decline in educational outcomes, student enrollment, and a fiscal crisis, progressives in the state legislature are more concerned with targeting parents than improving schools.

Assembly Bill 1955, introduced by Assemblyman Chris Ward (D-San Diego), aims to ban parental notification policies passed by a growing number of California school districts over the last year. The school districts passed those policies in response to the California Department of Education’s illegal “guidance” advising schools to keep separate secret files or “unofficial records” for students who seek to change their name or gender at school, intentionally concealing that information from parents.

Encouraging minors and school employees to keep secrets from parents fosters an environment that is ripe for abuse and distrust. In an in-depth exposé last year, California Policy Center president Will Swaim revealed how state policies that condone or even require schools to keep secrets from parents dangerously mirror the culture of secrecy surrounding the sexual abuse scandals that have occurred within the Catholic Church. In addition to the serious risk of harm and abuse posed to students in such an environment, secrecy policies also expose schools to massive legal liability.

In the 2023 case, Konen v. Spreckels Union School District, Jessica Konen and her daughter Alicia reached a $100,000 settlement with the Spreckels Union School District in Monterey County after the district socially “transitioned” Konen’s 11-year-old daughter to a boy without her mother’s knowledge or consent.

In May 2024, Jurupa Unified School District agreed to pay $360,000 to settle a lawsuit with teacher Jessica Tapia after she sued the district for violating her First Amendment rights when they terminated her employment. In a hypothetical response to questions from district personnel, Tapia said she would refuse to lie to parents about their child changing their gender identity at school.

Districts should be concerned with elevating their students’ achievement scores, graduation rates, and quality of education opportunities rather than engaging in dubious conduct that will increase financial liabilities from potential litigation.

What California parents want most is for their children to learn to read and write and be prepared for career success after graduation. Yet the state’s student assessment data shows that just less than half of California’s public school students met or exceeded the English language achievement levels for 2022-23. Math scores are even lower, with only 35 percent of students meeting or exceeding grade-level standards.

Districts also cannot ignore plummeting enrollment rates. Following the pandemic, California saw statewide student enrollment drop by 310,000 students, roughly the same number as total student enrollment of the state of Nebraska.

While declining birth rates contribute to the issue, it has been significantly worsened by an exodus of Californians from both public schools and the state itself. Enrollment continued to drop this year: another 15,000 students left the state’s public schools.

“Some of the decline was due to population loss during the pandemic, as families moved out of state, but it was also driven by families who turned to private schools or homeschooling,” Jenny Gold of the Los Angeles Times recently reported on California’s enrollment decline.

“While many school districts hoped students would return as the pandemic faded, that does not appear to have happened,” Gold wrote.

Parent concerns about educational quality, school safety and politicalized curriculum have pushed many families to pursue alternative options like charter schools — most of which are not controlled by teachers’ unions — and homeschooling.

Homeschool applications to the California Department of Education almost doubled from the 2018-19 to the 2020-21 academic year. California’s charter school enrollment has doubled over the past 15 years, demonstrating sustained growth even from pre-pandemic levels.

California’s education fiscal crisis is also largely going unaddressed. Unfunded pension liabilities are consuming significant amounts of K-12 education spending. In 2018, CalMatters reported projections from the state’s Department of Finance and Legislative Analyst’s Office that over the next three years, schools would use well over half of all the new money they were projected to receive to cover their growing pension obligations, leaving little extra for classrooms. Since then, those liabilities have only increased.

California’s Legislature has failed to address these crises for a very obvious reason: progressive lawmakers continue to walk in lockstep with California’s teachers’ unions. The teachers’ unions are more concerned about issues like climate justice than student achievement. And while too many California students are struggling in the classroom, the unions continue to strike for more pay for school employees at the expense of student learning, despite districts already struggling to meet financial obligations. California Department of Education data shows that expenditures on salaries and benefits for all employees typically make up 80% to 85% of a district’s budget, with the bulk of it already going to teachers.

Despite these catastrophic issues plaguing California’s schools, state legislators are more focused on advancing culture war politics in K-12 schools.

In addition to AB 1955, numerous other bills working their way through the legislature aim to weaken local control and parental rights. Senator Josh Newman’s (D-Orange) SB 907 aims to weaken the pro-parent majority on the Orange County Board of Education by adding two more seats and changing election dates, and Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi’s (D-Torrance) AB 2226 seeks to make kindergarten a mandatory requirement for children, taking decision-making away from parents and removing kids from their parents when they may not be ready. The bill also further entrenches job protections for California teachers’ unions. Meanwhile, AB 2222 has stalled in committee, a bill by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio (D-LA) that would address California’s literacy crisis by requiring school reading instruction to be aligned with the “science of reading.”

California’s education system is in crisis, grappling with declining enrollment, abysmal student performance, and fiscal woes. To overcome these challenges, California legislators should stop targeting parents with bills like AB 1955, and instead prioritize student achievement and parental involvement to advance meaningful education reform.

Andrew Davenport is a Policy & Research Associate with California Policy Center.

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