Editor’s note: This is the seventh article in a nine-part series on how to fix California. Read the first article in the series here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, the sixth here, and the seventh here.
Pragmatism. Abundance. Optimism. If these are the principles that should guide public policy in California—and they are—what the public schools offer is the exact opposite.
Instead of pragmatism, they offer partisan ideology.
Instead of emphasizing the ability, indeed, the obligation, for a modern and prosperous society to deliver abundance, the message is that we must ration everything we use, and treat employment as a zero-sum game, where jobs and opportunities are allocated by race and gender instead of in recognition of merit and passion.
And instead of an optimistic view of the future, the mandated curricula are steeped in pessimism: the climate emergency, the crisis of systemic racism, the catastrophe of capitalist enslavement, a sordid national history., and an oppressive, exploitative society.
It isn’t necessary to engage in yet another in-depth recitation of how California’s public schools have devolved into indoctrination chambers, failing low-income students most in need of a decent education. Rebellion is in the air.
Suffice to say, classroom discipline is replaced with “restorative justice.” Teacher accountability, now more than ever, gives way to “tenure” and a job for life. Measuring academic achievement with standardized tests has become racist, and as redress, the University of California will no longer consider applicants’ SAT scores. Learning multiplication tables and other practical quantitative skills gave way to “Common Core.” Timeless classics may alienate or even threaten young readers, so reading material is selected based on the race and gender of the authors. Lessons in basic concepts of science are contextualized with the horror of climate change, designed to instill panic. Rather than teaching a generally positive sense of history, students have the “1619 project.” And then, starting in the primary grades, there’s agenda-driven “gender” curricula.
Two generations of K-12 students have emerged from California’s public schools with relatively undeveloped skills in math and English, but steeped in the secular religion of class envy, pointless and bizarre race and gender theory, and a host of related maladies that can be accurately summarized as the politics of resentment, and the rejection of personal responsibility for collective victimhood.
This deception works so well because it creates a monstrous mental distraction, a mind-bending narrative that goes something like this: we are all victims of oppression by the white patriarchy, so naturally we’ll assume that our unaffordable homes, lack of good job opportunities, and burning forests are their fault. It won’t even occur to us that the people teaching us to hate the white patriarchy are the same people whose policies are truly to blame for the problems we face.
Putting ideology over practical instruction has consequences. In 2019, only half of California’s K-12 students met state standards in reading, only 40 percent were proficient in math. The solution, according to California’s education experts? Stop testing.
This can change. This must change. Discipline does not oppress misbehaving students, it rescues them. Incompetent teachers need to be fired. Tests matter. A command of basic math is an essential life skill and teaching math cannot rely on short cuts or gimmicks. Classics convey universal ideas and passions. The earth is not dying. America is a great nation and we are all lucky to live here. And little children will do just fine if we spare them transgender theory.
Ways to Fundamentally Improve Education in California
Supporters of education reform in California have never had a greater opportunity than right now. More parents than ever have witnessed the selfish overreach of the teachers’ unions during the pandemic. They’ve lost jobs and businesses while the teachers’ unions kept schools closed. They’ve seen, most of them for the first time, what sorts of material teachers were exposing their children to, as remote learning reached into almost every household. And they’ve experienced, by the millions, creative educational solutions that bypass the traditional public school system.
Change is in the air. Here are some battles that need to be fought.
Implement universal education savings accounts. The reform that would change everything is universal education savings accounts (ESAs), where the money follows individual students to whatever K-12 school their parents choose for them: traditional public school, charter school, parochial school, private school, or even charter/homeschool and private/homeschool hybrids.
Unchaining the torrent of money that currently pours into traditional public schools without competition and with minimal accountability would be an unprecedented breakthrough. Many of the details of how this could be done have been worked out in SB 1344, introduced by then State Senator John Moorlach in 2018. It would allocate education funds mandated under Proposition 98—the 1988 ballot measure that mandates at least 40 percent of the state’s general fund go to K-14 education—into ESAs, assigning an equal amount for every K-12 student in the state. Currently, that is about $14,000 per student per year. Any parent who opted into the program would be able to direct that money to a participating school, whether it’s a public, charter, or accredited private or parochial school. Unspent money would accumulate to be used for college, vocational, or any other accredited educational expense.
Empower charter schools. One of the biggest alternative means of fixing education in California is to empower charter schools. This could be accomplished by broadening the list of entities that can authorize charter schools, permitting charters denied initial opening or renewal applications to appeal to any authorizing entity, removing the cap on how many charter schools can be opened, and prohibiting denial of charter applications or renewals for reasons such as the alleged negative financial impact they may have on traditional public school budgets.
These are big ideas, but there’s much more.
Limit union negotiations to pay and benefits and outlaw strikes. Equally big and disruptive, and beneficial to public education in California, would be to roll back the prerogatives of the teachers’ unions. Currently, to quote a well-informed, indignant reformer who prefers anonymity at this time, “these unions can control what color chalk you are allowed to use on the blackboard.” More to the point, the teachers’ unions include in their bargaining negotiations things that ought to be up to the district superintendents and the elected school board, such as what textbooks to use. A reform that could go a long way towards fixing public education would be to simply rewrite the education code so unions negotiate over wages and benefits, and nothing more. At the same time, take away their right to strike. Defang the unions.
Change rules governing tenure, layoffs, and dismissal. Another reform, certain to attract bitter opposition from the teachers’ unions, would be simply to change some of the work rules. The Vergara case of 2016, which unfortunately failed in the California Supreme Court on a technicality, provides a roadmap. Lengthen a teacher’s probationary period before acquiring tenure to at least five years. Replace seniority with merit as the criteria governing which teachers to retain and which to let go in layoffs and downsizings. And greatly streamline the ability to fire incompetent or negligent teachers, so principals can hold them accountable, rewarding good teachers and terminating bad teachers.
Empower parents to opt out of politicized instruction. A major reform would be to empower parents to remove students from classes that the parents feel violate their beliefs and principles. The new sex education classes, which many parents feel are both inappropriately graphic and tinged with an agenda, are an obvious example, but there are others. Politicized curricula such as the controversial “1619 Project,” or critical race theory, are other examples that many parents already oppose. If it were properly formulated, a parent empowerment initiative could be successful. It would allow parents to prevent the indoctrination of their children.
Many national experts in education reform tend to bristle at the idea of wholesale, sweeping changes. But in almost every case, these are activists and lobbyists who worked with legislatures to enact reform. In those situations, the legislature may not have had a sufficient majority of staunch reform advocates to support dramatic changes. Incrementalism was the only possible way forward.
California is a different case. California’s legislature will never enact reforms. Pro-charter and pro-school choice advocates in California’s legislature are so outgunned that their mission is merely to reduce the speed at which the teachers’ unions accomplish their ever-expanding agenda.
For this reason, the only thing that should matter to education reformers in California is what voters think. California’s ballot initiative process is the one final safety valve preventing a complete takeover of the state government by special interests.
A Model School
The reason California needs education reform—school choice, education savings accounts, charter school empowerment, management reforms, work rule reforms, parental rights—is so more schools like the Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA) can open as competitive alternatives.
Despite being one of the most encouraging developments in California’s public education in, say, the last 50 years, it is a sad testament to the times we live in that what OCCA does is considered revolutionary. Here is a brief summary of how OCCA differs from every traditional public elementary school in California.
First, they have scrapped the Common Core approach to teaching English and math, and they are making the sex education curriculum “non-pornographic, age-appropriate, and medically accurate.” Since Common Core and the recently revised state sex education guidelines have been unpopular with parents and are of dubious value if not actually harmful to students, these are big changes. Moreover, the OCCA’s sex education lessons are transparent for parents and the school offers a simple process for parents to opt-out.
Second, OCCA is a licensed operator to use the K-12 curriculum developed by Hillsdale College. Currently, 20 charter schools in 10 U.S. states use the Hillsdale model, which is patterned on the college’s own approach to the liberal arts, with a special emphasis on the traditions of Western Civilization. Specifically, the lessons acknowledge America’s important role in the world, embracing Judeo-Christian principles as expressed by the American founders. These lessons do not apologize for Western traditions, and will allow all of the students early exposure to the greatest thinkers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Augustine, and so on.
The students are even taught Latin as their foreign language, with all the benefits and insights early instruction in Latin facilitates: ease in learning any Romance language, and familiarity with the roots of most medical, scientific, and professional terms still in common use.
Third, the way OCCA has coped with the COVID-19 pandemic is based on expert medical advice and unaffected by the opportunistic demands of the teachers’ unions. OCCA has been open with no requirement for face coverings for either students or teachers, although all are free to wear them if they wish. The school carried on normal classroom instruction without social distancing or distance learning. The policy is based on virtually all medical data so far showing that COVID-19 is not dangerous to children, and is almost never spread by asymptomatic children, combined with the fact that wearing face masks and enforcing social distancing is harmful to the psyche and the social and intellectual development of children.
None of these revolutionary intentions of OCCA would have happened were it not for a long, bitter fight the organizers had to wage with the teachers’ unions and the politicians they control. Charter schools, along with homeschooling, religious schools, and private schools all constitute a mortal threat to the teachers’ union monopoly.
What OCCA teaches, promoting Western virtues instead of claiming the West is the scourge of human history and the scapegoat upon which to blame all travails of “disadvantaged” communities, is equally anathema to the teachers’ unions. OCCA’s focus on classical education is an audacious, uncompromising challenge to the leftist indoctrination that sadly informs nearly everything taught these days in California’s traditional public schools. In an overt slap to the unions, OCCA even intends to include in their instructional materials videos from Prager University, an institution that is loathed by the Left.
Saving Public Education Saves California and Saves America
It’s tough to overstate how much fixing K-12 education in California would change everything, and it is also tough to overstate just how powerful the teachers’ unions will fight against reforms. California’s public-sector unions collect and spend nearly $1 billion, mostly in membership dues, per year. More than half that money flows into the unions representing teachers and other school employees.
But voter sentiments are changing. California’s powerful teachers’ unions spent over $20 million last year promoting Proposition 15, which would have increased taxes on commercial properties. Other unions, mostly in the public sector, spent another $17 million to promote Prop. 15. But voters weren’t buying it. Prop. 15 failed.
Overall, in November 2020, California’s government unions spent nearly $70 million to promote or oppose state ballot measures, and almost all of that spending was unsuccessful. While a couple of union-supported ballot propositions were approved by voters, they weren’t high priorities, attracting only around $200,000 in union spending.
This result presents a paradox. Why is it that public-sector unions, which easily wield financial supremacy over any of their political competitors, and use that money to make or break the political campaigns of nearly every member of the California State Legislature, and which in similar manner control nearly every city council, county board of supervisors, school board, and governing board of transit districts and fire districts and transportation districts. Why couldn’t they impose their will on California’s electorate when it came to ballot propositions in 2020?
Consider these results on key initiatives, all contrary to the will of California’s government unions: 52 percent of voters rejected increasing property taxes, 56 percent rejected “no bail” laws, 57 percent rejected the reinstatement of racial preferences, 58 percent supported the rights of independent contractors, and 60 percent rejected rent control.
In this paradox there is opportunity. California’s voters are no longer the predictable bloc that government unions have relied upon for the past 20 or 30 years. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the rebellion against union power exemplified by voter rejection of union-supported ballot measures may not be the beginning of the end, but it is definitely the end of the beginning. Voters are finally waking up, fitfully shedding decades of indoctrination.
And why shouldn’t they? California has it all—a diverse economy, rich natural resources, deep water ports on the Pacific Rim, the best universities, the epicenter of high tech, and the finest weather on the planet—and yet its governance is a mess. The public schools are failing, the mismanaged forests are burning up, income inequality and poverty are among the worst in America, housing is unaffordable, and the urban downtowns are overrun with drug addicts and predators.
All of this can be quickly fixed by good governance. The answers for correcting these failures are not elusive, nor are they partisan. Repeal extreme environmentalist regulations that have made it impossible to construct affordable housing without subsidies. Restore laws against intoxication, petty theft, and vagrancy, and watch half the homeless population suddenly find shelter with friends and relatives. Help the rest in inexpensive supervised encampments where sobriety is a condition of entrance. Bring back the timber industry to thin the forests and create jobs. But why aren’t these fixes implemented?
The reason is equally simple: Government unions, government contractors, powerful “nonprofits,” monopolistic corporations, and Big Tech companies acquire power and profit by never solving these problems. And along with the insane sums of money they deploy to manipulate public opinion and fund political campaigns, they rely on a thoroughly indoctrinated electorate to support their dysfunction—an electorate that is the product of unionized public schools.
This has been a brilliant scam. But if you change the schools, you change the future. Maybe, just maybe, Californians are ready to demand change.
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Edward Ring is a contributing editor for the California Policy Center.