Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Riches to Rags: California Schools

For all of those out there who don't know, the public educational system in the Golden State sucks big time. As a state, we now rank 40th in the nation. How did this happen in a course of 25 years?

With the gory details, John Merrow's documentary on CA public education called "From First to Worst" will air this week on local PBS stations in CA. I'm sorry to find that only a handful of PBS stations will be showing this documentary outside of CA. If so, you'll have to settle for the parts of program found online.

Here in Santa Monica, our public schools have a great reputation. But the ugly secret is that if you look more closely, we have really two school systems here, one for the wealthy and one for the not so wealthy. Our wealthier schools, which include those in the Malibu area, benefit from extremely active and savvy parent-run educational foundations pumping money into their particular school. These schools, the parents are proud to say, are literally semi-private public schools. In the not so wealthy areas of Santa Monica, however, working class and immigrant parents struggle with fundraising. The parents don't have the time, the skill set, the connections, the resources. And it shows in the schools and the programs offered.

To partially mitigate this discrepancy, our superintendent, John Deasy, is proposing a controversial plan to require 15% of all privately raised money be thrown into a general fund. Money to different schools will then be doled out using a complicated need-based formula.

Not surprisingly, this has elicited howls of indignation and rage from our wealthier set of parents. It's really divided the community here with questions about fairness, entitlement, and self-responsibility.

For instance, is it fair that the hard earned money of parents in one area of Santa Monica be given to schools who don't do as much fundraising? On the other hand, is it fair that one school provides free whale watching trips and poetry writing sessions to their kindergartners while the school nearby with different demographics runs a more bare-bones program? The questions can be spun in many different ways. I certainly don't have the answers but I think that for our community, continuing this discussion ultimately benefits us all.

Our situation is really a microcosm of what's going on larger scale in CA. Merrow covers other topics as well, including a look at the impact of Prop. 13 and immigration on public education.

For those who wonder why we should worry about public education, Merrow makes a couple of good points. He points out that one out of 8 children in US public education are in California public schools. Peter Schrag, in one interview, notes that what goes in CA will happen in the rest of the nation.
    "And I think a lot of other things are at stake, not just the economy. We talked about California as being a harbinger of the future and so on. Certainly our demographics are the direction the whole country is heading. Which is going to be more heavily Latino and Hispanic. And so if we don't succeed here in this, we're in deep trouble.
Finally, from Merrow:
    "A strong public education system is essential for a healthy democracy, Merrow said. "Democracy is not instinctive behavior, it's learned behavior," he said. "That's why it's critical that somehow California get back on the path from worst to first."

For those who won't be able to see this program, the PBS website contains quite a bit of information, such as partial transcripts of interviews, and other goodies.
Two reviews: here and here
In Los Angeles, it airs 10PM Thursday night, KCET. Check here for your local schedule.
crossposted at the american street